If you’ve ever been in a car crash and, while looking at the damage, regretted you don’t drive with a couple of mattresses strapped to your car, you’ll be pleased to hear this: automotive safety supplier ZF TRW is developing an external airbag system that could be in cars as soon as 2020.

Here’s how ZF TRW describes their idea:

ZF TRW had developed a pre-crash external airbag that deploys from the external side structure of the vehicle to help protect passenger in the event of a side impact crash. The airbag design utilizes a high volume 3D bag with internal tethers. This external pre-crash airbag helps to partially absorb the energy of a side impact collision.

The airbag system was shown recently at CES, where a prototype, displacing a volume about twice that of a standard side-curtain airbag (200 liters) was demonstrated. The airbag requires two inflators and takes longer to fill than a conventional internal airbag, so it would require sensors to deploy just prior to an impact, rather than detecting the impact itself, as in conventional airbags.

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TRW says the airbags could reduce the force of a side impact by about 30 percent, and the technology seems promising, but there’s still a lot of work to do. The airbags, housed perhaps on or in a vehicles underbody frame rails, would have to be resistant to weather, dirt, corrosion, small impact from road debris, etc. Also, the sensors would have to be smart enough not to, say, deploy because some jackass threw a can of Pabst at your car.

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To a small degree, external airbags are already out there, in the pedestrian-protecting systems used by carmakers like Volvo to raise and cushion the hood in the event of ramming some poor bastard walking along.

Perhaps eventually smaller versions of these airbags could be built into a car’s side molding strips to help minimize cosmetic damage from minor collisions, or perhaps even scare off someone coming to key your car.

Older vehicles I suppose, could still be retrofitted by strapping a pair of old mattresses to the sides.