Volvo V40 has airbags on the outsideComment on this story
When politicians get involved in car design, the results are usually pretty ugly - just look at the current crop of Formula one machines for a case in point. Much the same is happening to passenger car design as EU directives on pedestrian safety force designers into unsightly compromises.
The trouble with that, of course, is that ugly cars just don't sell. Ask Fiat; its Multipla is still the most practical, most comfortable and nicest-to-drive mid-sized MPV ever made but it was so spectacularly ugly Fiat couldn't give it away and it was prematurely discontinued.
But political correctness demands that carmakers address these issues, particularly Volvo, with its long-standing reputation as a leader in automotive safety, because pedestrians will always walk in front of cars - and vice versa. You can't legislate human nature.
Then some bright spark on the Volvo team made the connection that a car doesn't necessarily have to look like a misshapen blob all the time - only for a split second after it hits someone.
And in any case, a lot of injuries to pedestrians are inflicted by the A pillars and the super-tough glass of the windscreen, neither of which is open to modification by the Eurocrats.
So the new V40 looks like a car that was designed by people who like cars, and for that reason alone it will sell like posters of Megan Fox. But under that slinky bonnet there's a U-shaped airbag - a world first, says Volvo - that works just like the ones that protect the occupants, except that it's triggered by impact sensors in the front bumper.
Cars are heavier, harder and faster than people.
When those sensors register physical contact between the car and a pedestrian, the hinges at the back of the bonnet let go and the airbag, which is stowed at the base of the windscreen, inflates.
Part of the airbag stays under the bonnet, lifting it away from its hinges and morphing the front of the V40 into the ski-ramp shape beloved of EU technocrats, sliding the pedestrian away from the danger area at the front end of the car.
The rest of the airbag deploys upwards to cover the lower third of the windscreen (which is almost always where pedestrians hit it) with two extra inflated sections covering the A pillars, also a common source of pedestrian eina.
More than that, the squishy surface absorbs the kinetic energy inherent in the collision, helping to prevent the luckless pedestrian from being flung high in the air and doing themselves a whole lot more mischief when next they make contact with terra firma.
The reality is that cars are heavier, harder and faster than people; a pedestrian knocked down by a V40 will still probably suffer leg fractures, but Volvo's test dummy crashes indicate that the severity of their other injuries will be reduced by the pedestrian airbag.