In the future, airbags may not be relegated to the interior of a car. On Wednesday, German auto supplier ZF showed off its prototype external airbag system, which aims to provide an extra safety net in the event of a side-impact crash.

The concept is rather simple. When the ZF system detects a crash is imminent, an airbag inflates on the outside of the car to provide an additional crumple zone. The airbag helps keep passengers safer as it absorbs some of the impact and possibly keeps the other car from intruding into the cockpit.

ZF showed off how the system works in the real world for the first time and provided impressive statistics. For starters, the external airbags reduced injury severity by 40 percent in the case of a side-impact crash. This crash scenario is often deadly, according to ZF research, and makes up nearly one-third of driver and passenger deaths on German roads.

ZF exterior curtain airbag

ZF exterior curtain airbag

Further, the system reduced penetration of the intruding vehicle by 30 percent.

The entire system works quickly to calculate if an external airbag is needed on one side or the other. Sensors, lidar, radar, and cameras work together to give the system a digital checklist before deploying an airbag. The system first checks to see if a crash is avoidable, and if it's not, special algorithms calculate if the external airbag will be beneficial and help protect the occupants. If the system gives a greenlight for an external side airbag to fire, the inflators fire up and fill the airbag just as the impact occurs. ZF said it all happens in 150 milliseconds—about the amount of time it takes for a human to blink his or her eyes. The bag fills from the bottom up with 280 to 400 liters of air, which is five to eight times that of a standard steering wheel airbag. The bag fills the area between the A- and C-pillars.

While the company didn't provide any details on if and when this system will enter production, vehicle safety remains a crucial pillar of new cars. This is especially true as distracted driving becomes more prominent.