Volvo was the first to install an airbag on the outside, when it fitted one between the hood and windshield on the V40, pictured above. The device was designed to mitigate injury to a pedestrian by cushioning his or her head upon impact. As pioneering as Volvo has been, however, in implementing exterior airbags, it won't be the last.
Recently merged component supplier giants ZF and TRW have been experimenting with other ideas. One possibility they recently demonstrated would mount an airbag outside on the side of the vehicle that would inflate just prior to impact in the event of a side-impact collision in order to mitigate the prospect of injury to the vehicle's occupants. Another would detonate a small charge to push the seat away from the door under similar conditions. Among others, Autoliv – which developed the pedestrian hood airbag with Volvo – has experimented with a steel tube fitted with balloons that would inflate to protect pedestrians.
The emergence of autonomous vehicles could stand to reduce the number and degree of traffic accidents, and therefore the need for more airbags. However their widespread implementation is still years, if not decades, away. In the meantime we can expect automakers and their suppliers to continue developing new safety measures both on the inside and the outside of new cars.