Airbags on the outside of a car? To most Americans, the idea of changing vehicle designs and adding exterior airbags to protect folks on foot sounds like a joke. It's not. Long-anticipated regulations aimed at limiting deaths and injuries in 25-mph (40-km/h) vehicle-to-pedestrian impacts take effect next year in Europe and are expected in Japan by 2007, if not sooner.

The Ford Motor Co. SUV on our cover is only a concept, developed several years ago, but work is ongoing. The airbags deploy from the windshield and bumper area when activated by a pre-crash sensor and inflate within 50-75 milliseconds — enough time to save someone's life. The technology works; the drawback is cost.

Spokesmen for the U.S. design centers of General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG say most of the responsibilities for meeting these regulations are being handled by their European studios, but all export vehicles must be designed to meet the rules, and various strategies for complying with the standards currently are being evaluated, including possible effects on aerodynamics and fuel economy.

Most auto makers won't have to add exterior airbags or implement drastic changes to meet the 2005 requirements, but much stricter legislation scheduled for 2010 could force major changes in the way vehicle front ends are designed and engineered. And in the auto industry, where new-product lead times of three and four years are common, 2010 isn't far off.

What's more, auto makers are developing more platforms and architectures designed to be sold throughout the world, so such regional regulations are an issue in Detroit and other automotive centers that may not be directly affected by the legislation.

Auto makers will not be able to sell new vehicles in the European Union after Oct. 1, 2005, unless they conduct strict tests to prove their vehicles meet the new pedestrian impact rules.

All new passenger cars and light vans will have to pass two tests to meet requirements for protecting pedestrians from head and leg injuries in frontal impacts. The tests will cover impacts involving the A-pillar, bumper, the hood's leading edge and outer structure and the windshield.

In the second phase beginning in 2010, four tests of increased severity will be required. Two will cover head injuries and two leg injuries. Standards for both adults and children will have to be met. Bumpers made of flexible materials and hoods that cave in to cushion the impact will be among the changes required to meet both phases.

The directive also calls for extra space between the exterior surface and the underhood structure from the front bumper to the windshield. The 8-in. (20-cm) gap is expected to reduce the severity of pedestrian injuries by better dispersing the impact energy of a person striking an automobile's front-end, hood or windshield area.

Even auto engineers in far-flung locations such as Brazil are watching the new EU regulations closely, because so many Brazilian-made cars now are exported to Europe.

Why all the fuss?

Outside North America, pedestrian deaths are a far higher percentage of overall traffic fatalities. In EU countries, one-fifth of all traffic deaths are pedestrians hit by a vehicle. In densely populated countries such as the U.K., the rate is as high as 30%. In total, more than 7,000 pedestrians are killed every year in Europe.

In Japan, nearly 2,700 are killed, amounting to 30% of all traffic fatalities.

According to EU statistics, nearly 80% of these fatalities are caused when the pedestrian's head hits the hood or windshield.

The average speed of these impacts is 25 mph (40 km/h); exactly the velocity the EU is requiring for its tests.

By comparison, a study released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. in March revealed that pedestrian deaths are just 11% of all motor vehicle crashes in the U.S.

Despite the good intentions, not everyone is taking the regulations in stride.

Roger Putnam, chairman of Ford of Europe Inc.'s U.K. operations, complained recently at the Birmingham International Motor Show that some of the legislative measures “defy the laws of physics” and could add €5,000 ($6,135) to the price of a new car.

However, experts at safety system suppliers such as TRW Automotive, Autoliv Inc. and independent engineering consulting firms say the 2005 regulations should not be that onerous for most manufacturers.

“It will cause changes in styling and it's going to cause the OEMs to work harder to meet the requirements, but I don't think it's really going to require radical change in the way people design cars,” says Jim Hadden, chief operating officer-Arup Vehicle Design Group, which has engineering centers in the U.K., Tokyo and Detroit.

“Maybe the hood will be a little higher, the bumper will be a little lower, cars will be a little more rounded, but it's not really going to make everybody completely rethink the way they do things.”

Arup recently developed new pedestrian-impact analysis software designed to mesh with the digital models of new vehicle designs and help engineers meet the new standards.

However, Hadden says if the second phase of the legislation, which is not yet finalized, is implemented, “then cars will change dramatically both in the way they look and the way they are designed.

“You're going to have to have six to 12 ins. (15 cm to 30 cm) of energy-absorbing foam or something that behaves like a deployable hood all over the front of the car. Unless you can magically shrink the engine, you're going to have much larger front ends, which will have a big effect on size and mass and fuel economy,” adds Hadden.

Even headlights will have to be designed differently, Arup says.

The first casualties of the pedestrian-safety push are so-called “bull bars” on SUVs and protruding hood ornaments of luxury brands such as Jaguar, Rolls Royce and Mercedes-Benz.

Bull bars, originally designed to protect SUV grilles and radiators from branches while crashing through the brush, now are almost purely ornamental and present a real threat to pedestrians. Most auto makers already have abandoned them in Europe, although some manufacturers reportedly offer soft plastic versions that are pedestrian friendly.

Jaguar's famous lunging cat, the “leaper,” has all but disappeared in Europe because it can act like a spear in pedestrian collisions. The once-iconic 3-pointed star is showing up on fewer new Mercedes-Benz models, too, even though it has been mounted on a pivoting, spring-loaded base for years.

More significantly, company executives told Ward's earlier this year the 2005 legislation killed GM's plan to offer a version of its '06 Pontiac Solstice in Europe.

Light trucks with tall, upright grilles and low-slung sports cars are expected to be among the vehicles most affected by the new safety standards.

“Sadly, we were not able to get (Solstice) in on time under the 2005 pedestrian protection legislation in Europe, which is just going to radically change the look of automobiles in Europe, post-2005. The next generation of European cars is going to look different,” says Bob Lutz, GM vice chairman-product development.

Lutz expects European vehicle front ends to feature horizontal hoods and flat fascias, similar to the flat, upright look of the Chrysler Group's new Dodge Magnum and Chrysler 300.

“If you could imagine the (Chevy) Nomad, the (Saturn) Curve or the Solstice with the front-end sheetmetal (that) much higher, it would spoil the design concept considerably,” Lutz told reporters at last January's Detroit auto show.

But instead of overhauling front-end designs, many auto makers are working with suppliers TRW Automotive, Autoliv, Siemens VDO Automotive AG and others to develop alternatives, such as so-called “active hoods,” that use sensors to detect an impending collision with a pedestrian and then activate a spring or small airbag-like device to instantaneously raise the hood several inches to create the required crush space.

These safety devices are less expensive than full-blown airbags, but still are relatively complex and expensive.

“Everyone is working on it,” Adam Opel AG chief Carl-Peter Forester said last winter. “And it will cost a lot of money.”

Alain Charlois, director-Product Planning for Occupant Safety Systems, TRW Automotive, says the supplier is working on numerous types of active hoods, including a hood lifter — that can be raised mechanically via a spring or with pyrotechnics — that can increase the distance between the hood and engine block, as well as the possibility of inflating hood and windshield airbags. Some systems are easily “reversible” Charlois says, while others would require more serious replacement costs.

Autoliv is developing a similar system featuring a sensor in the vehicle's front bumper that sends a signal to two steel bellows. These lift the rear part of the hood and allow the pedestrian's head to then contact a deformable and flexible metal surface instead of a hard, rigid one. The sensor is so accurate it can differentiate between a lamp post and a human leg.

While such systems may still sound a little crude — aside from the sensors — Autoliv says such an active hood can transform a 25-mph car-pedestrian impact from an event that causes almost certain death to one with less than a 15% risk of life-threatening injuries.

The 2010 EU legislation currently is undergoing an official feasibility study, with the results due this month. If the 2010 protection standard remains unchanged, shockwaves likely will ripple all the way to the U.S.

Nick Jaksa, a Rochester, MI-based representative for BiA T.E.S.T. Group, a Paris-based producer of pedestrian-safety test equipment, says there already is a global engineering group working to standardize pedestrian safety rules, and he adds he recently landed a major sale of testing equipment to a Detroit-based OEM. He expects more orders in coming months.

Thomas Herpich, manager — systems technology, TRW Automotive Europe, says global technical regulations (GTRs) are being written in Europe that will have a profound influence on how future vehicles and pedestrian-safety systems are developed. While it is unclear whether NHTSA is considering adding another standard, the U.S. did sign an agreement in 1998 to take into account GTRs, he says.

Momentum for tougher traffic safety standards appears to be building globally.

The European Commission has announced that it wants to reduce deaths on the road 50% by 2010.

In an April 14 speech on road safety, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta said that by 2020, the World Health Organization projects traffic crashes will rank third among all contributors to the global burden of disease — ahead of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

He then said the Bush Admin. has established a goal to further reduce the traffic death rate by a third by 2008 — to one death per 100 million vehicle miles (161 million km) traveled.

With the proliferation of current vehicle-safety systems starting to reach a level of diminishing returns in developed countries, pedestrian-safety legislation may be the only way local governments will be able to reach their lofty traffic-safety goals.

One observer suggests the final straw for North America may come from the U.S. legal system. Once Japanese and European vehicles arrive in the U.S. equipped with soft front ends and devices such as active hoods, he says product-liability lawyers might use that as an excuse to argue that any auto maker without them is negligent.

with Brian Corbett and Jonathan Thomson