Make Cars Safer By Making Them Softer

Would making autonomous vehicles softer make them safer?

Alphabet’s self-driving car offshoot, Waymo, feels that may be the case as they were recently granted a patent for vehicles that soften on impact. Sensors would identify an impending collision and adjust ‘tension members’ on the vehicle’s exterior to cushion the blow. These ‘members’ would be corrugated sections or moving panels that absorb the impact alongside the crumpling effect of the vehicle, making adjustments based on the type of obstacle the vehicle is about to strike.

The new reality of self driving vehicles has had people anxious over safety concerns with good reason, as our own Elliot Williams points out — but any man vs. car standoff rarely favours the human side. In light of that, it would be nice to see this technology go the route of the three-point seat belt, becoming an industry standard.

For now, Skynet will have to contend with smaller, cuter and potentially less destructive autonomous vehicles while we as a species decide to whether to trust this nascent technology.

[via Dezeen]

78 thoughts on “Make Cars Safer By Making Them Softer

    1. Hey, yeah – a layer of those glued together with that ballistics gel they make dummies and stuff out of. Maybe a layer of tires stuck to the outside of that, like on tugboats.

      I wonder if you could get those suckers to bounce like bumper cars at 30mph. I guess you’d also have to find a way to make people not die of whiplash…

  1. Are we already preparing for the fact that autonomous cars will be worse at detecting pedestrians?

    There are better answers:
    – urban design that better separates vehicles and pedestrians
    – fewer vehicles, not more (but the autonomous car fanboiz hate that one)

    Anyway, all urban vehicles would be safer to pedestrians with a Nerf exterior. Body by Fisher-Price. Good luck with that.

      1. Why does it have to be either/or? Trolleys AND autonomous vehicles for the many situations where trolleys and trains make no sense. Anyway the cat is already out of the bag; both are here now.

        1. Public transit and urban design requires government investment; autonomous vehicles are this magic new technology that is allegedly going to carry more people, more safely, without requiring a dime of infrastructure improvement. While ensuring that auto manufacturers survive for a couple of decades longer.

          Colour me skeptical.

      2. Trolley and train systems are subject to the same problems as automobiles, but they have their own additional shortcomings, such as being fixed in place by the wires/tracks. They become overcrowded as the city grows, but also constrict the city from growing because so many people are constricted to where the public transit will take them and therefore property prices around the transit lines increase and so do the prices of goods and services.

        The half-and-half solution is worse because it represents a redundant infrastructure where people have to own private cars (or rent robots) to get to the waypoints not covered by the public transit system, and also pay for the pubic transit system.

        For these reasons you’ll find that in most cities with extensive public transportation, the system is heavily subsidized either directly or through subsidized discounts to specific groups like students, disabled, the poor, children and the elderly – otherwise almost nobody would use it. Everybody else with somewhere to go and a time to meet already have their own cars, and to not use the car would be just throwing money away with all the fixed costs like insurance being paid anyways.

      3. Well as Waymo envisions it it is stupid though it could be workable on special highway lanes.
        As for their pedestrian safety idea the laws of physics are against them instead maybe try teaching people common sense and designing cross walks in such a way to minimize dangerous interactions.

    1. I thought autonomous cars were going to result in less overall vehicles, being we would move to an “uber” model where the 1% own all cars, and charge us a fee to move us around.

      1. A car is much more than transportation. It’s an illusion of freedom to go anywhere whenever you feel like it. Cyclists don’t get it because of their limited range and hauling capacity. A car is to most what canned food and firearms are to preppers.

        1. Is that a dig at ‘preppers’ ? I’m sure the folks in Houston are wishing they had ready to go ‘bug out bags’ and plans, that would’ve allowed them to escape the FEMA camps/shelters.

          1. derail… everyone should have enough food and water to survive a few days without power, but ‘prepping’ would do little for those harmed by Harvey. Very few had to wait days for assistance. Harvey was not the sort of SHTF event that preoccupies most ‘preppers’,

        2. Cagers don’t get it. Bikes are the closest thing to free energy that we have already going. Solves many urban problems. Oh there is that life extension thing too, real exercise.
          Lotsa gas in flooded Texas, it’s just mixed into the flood waters. Storing lots of it at home…

          1. A bike is a sports device, but no serious means of transportation. A serious means of transportation has an engine and allows me to do 600 or 800km a day if I want without much effort to any place where roads are available. Also independent of (train) schedules, with my seat, music, temperature control and so much nice things more.
            The energy for the bike is the greatest opposite to “free” one can think of: not only you have to buy the most expensive chemical energy available in the from of food, you also have to “burn” it in your own body, accompanied with pain, blood, sweat and tears. OK, not really all 4 of it, but pain and sweat is normally involved in riding a bike over longer distance.

          2. Human power is 5 to 6 times less efficient than burning gasoline for the same power, that’s why we got rid of horses. Compared to a moped, the bike pollutes more.

          3. Well the best things about bicycles is that they are faster and cleaner for cities, and that exercise is perfect for most people.. Mopeds are one of the worst pollutants in a city.

            For me a bicycle is perfect for 30km to 50 km per day, which is all I need. If you want to go somewhere else you just pop into a train with the bicycle. My effective range is about 350km per day, but that is mainly because I don’t like to travel sitting inactive.

            As for energy usage most people in the west eat too much so spending 30 min to 90 min on a bicycle each they is a gain for everyone, this is even true if people use an ebike.

          4. Any time cars are discussed here come the bicycle idealists. The bottom line is that bicycles are a solution only for some people in some locations going to some destinations. Period. And yes, I myself bicycle dozens of miles every week.

        3. “Cyclists don’t get it because of their limited range and hauling capacity.”

          Your phrase is easily debunked…

          Case for Push Cyclist:

          As for push-bikes (pedal cycles for the USA), You’ll be surprised as to what I’ve hauled about: Hint: 8x 12v 6Ah lead acid batteries one session, >KW amplifiers (for that random field party/illegal rave), decks, recording studio style mixing tables (albeit some of this in different sessions of travel)….

          As for limited range: Tour De France…. pfft, heard people travel further than that! Didn’t a low caste member of a tribe in India travel all the way to somewhere in mid Europe to be with the love of their life (The years before all this immigration red tape, also it was someone from an embassy in said European country, famous enough that a Bollywood movie was made based on said story.. AFAIR)?

          I’ve towed a plenty on the back of capable Push bikes, Also on many of these “fail” sites on the web, there is a picture of an African tradesman/transportee/something-transport person with a load of bricks over stacked on a pushbike.

          Case for Motor Bikes:

          As for motorbikes, limited range: a tank of fuel looks smaller… however if it ain’t a ‘Harley then it’ll outlast a car tank 3x larger than it. Period.
          For haulage: I’ve seen a Harley Davidson with a tow bar mod pull a full caravan!!! In real life, Yes, you’re reading that right… I’m not on about IRL-sitting at a PC watching Youtube vids… No! I went to a Hell’s Angels (UK version, been to a few BTW) open-day bike show event… Plenty of Harley Davidsons pulling caravans there!

          Even still, people have fit more on their motorbike than most people can in their cars, especially touring bikes with several top-boxes and pannier boxes all left, right and center!

          1. @dahud that is something I would also like to know. There are no dedicated cycle lanes in my city, at best they’re bus, taxi and whatever else lanes which bikes can use so while I could potentially haul a caravan with a push-bike if I stuck in first gear all the way it’d definitely not be safe. Maybe a trailer would be okay so long as you have an electric boost?

          2. Quote:
            “Tell me, how would one fit a week’s worth of groceries and a bag of horse feed on a bicycle?”

            For the weeks worth of groceries, that is the easiest:
            It depends on how many mouths to feed:
            Single or married: One goes out with panniers for some of the shopping, bags balanced on both handle bars, a frame-bag (the bag that fits between the triangle of the frame) to carry the flat packable stuff i.e. square cartons of juice, cereal, etc…
            As for a family of five…. things get a little harder, hope both partners in the family have good health.

            Worse comes to worse:
            There are side mount towing (rocks all over the place) and there is seat-post mount towing. The seat-post mount towing usually has to be built out of one of those third-wheel DIY-Tandem bolt on things that a kid goes on when going out for a cycle ride.

            Motorcycle and side-car… towing issue solved and handle bars now safer.

            This towing solves for the unknown quantity of horse feed….

            Oh and you own a horse?…….
            Your conversational partner has disconnected!

          3. @Redhatter (VK4MSL):

            Your link seems to just time out unless visited to via the TOR browser I use to get around certain… Ahem bans/censor/etc.

            It seems the UK is censoring that site… or a single ISP maybe?

          4. So, uh, what about those that need to commute 30+km and don’t feel like wasting 2 hours each day doing that? What about adverse weather conditions, such as ice or a nice blizzard? (you are NOT allowed to use studded tires on a public road btw, even on a bike)
            What about accidents? 50km/h into a hard object in a modern car is something you’re still expected to walk away from on your own. Do that on a bike (it’ll be even more entertaining carrying the ~20kg of weekly groceries) and you’ll be considered lucky if you wake up in an intensive care ward.

            Then there’s this evil thing called a “hill”, ever heard of it? If you have to commute somewhere to a significantly different elevation ( despite what some say, the world is not flat…), a bicycle is just plain useless.

          5. You’re still dodging the point that bicycles as a main mode of transportation is a veritable 3rd world solution that very few would take up voluntarily if they didn’t absolutely have to.

            Not everybody is a 20 something peak of their life tour de france winner with hours and hours of time to waste to get anywhere. When I was working construction, the prospect of having to cycle 10 miles to and from work would have elicited a big F U if only for the sheer amount of effort after doing physical labor for 8 hours. In another job, I would have had to bike for 8 hours just to commute, as you can’t maintain a very high average speed for the distance without being completely exhausted.

            A bicycle compared to a car changes all your life choices. The free movement of labor on the scale of the society is extremely important for the efficient running of the economy – you have to think of not only the cushy office jobs, but all the plumbers, builders, technicians…

          6. @AKA the A:
            I already carry at least an EliteBook 8730W (Graphics/CAD processing) or a Latitude E6400 with a 200W PSU brick with a 1-metre Motorbike level security chain+Padlock (about 8mm thick steel in the chain links). And I carry that at least 20miles a day to and from work.
            Then there is the weekly microwavable morning and lunch meals+ drinks and other food each week.

            As for that 48v 12Ah lead acid battery mentioned in my original post: That came from a self-destructed APC 2200U (rack mount model) UPS.
            That battery was to test an E-Bike wheel found in scrap, That wheel was unimpressive: consumed 300W and was more effort to cycle.
            I strained my back and the pain lasted for 2 and a half weeks because I didn’t lean the battery containing backpack on the table before attaching it to my back.
            That included the weight of the laptop and PSU as well. PSUmodel No: HSTNN-CA24

            There are some hills here as well, though mostly flat throughout.

            As for the 2H for 30Miles…. On a good day I travel <30-Mins per 10 miles… Call that 1 Hour and 15mins for a 30Mile trip.

            I annoy those “I own the road in my spandex fetish suit on my floppy plastic 10-gram bike” type idiots by overtaking them on a customized to hell heavy steel frame that looks like it was from a mad max film.

            Oh and somewhere on another blog post around here, We determined I process about 600W of energy into my pedals!

            My brother has a 1KW bike and only on down hills and slight inclines I catch up, that isonly because he likes the easier (middle sprocket) gear on the crank sprockets. Otherwise if he used ALL the potential… He’ll leave me to the wind in all cases! (by 400W and 100W-human input of extra boost advantage)

          7. I was not claiming that bikes can’t substitute cars in a lot of scenarios, but the aura surrounding the car as a symbol of independence is a factor in why people chose them over bicycles. Another thing is mobility of the workforce. Wages are kept in check because the availability of workers is not limited to the ones living next to your business. Likewise prices are averaged also. Negative effects of high mobility is the migration to larger cities as this is where the money is generated. If we only had our feet to propel us, rural areas would be thriving.

          8. >” If we only had our feet to propel us, rural areas would be thriving.”

            On the contrary. You would get vast extended urban ghettos around the cities, as distances in the rural areas are even longer and access to modern technology and services depends on the fact that you can drive a pickup truck to a hardware store, or call a vet in for your ill cow.

            See every capital city in the developing world. Lots of people with only their feet to propel them existing alongside fairly modern urban areas. The combination gives you shanty towns full of criminals and beggars.

        4. I’ve had jobs where the ability to go somewhere 100 miles away was a necessity you’re not doing that in a timely fashion on a bicycle and mass transit simply was not available to all destinations so having a car was not a comfort item but absolutely necessary.

          1. Happily this is seldom the case.

            It’s funny how people who have 3-7 km to work cite “that 100km commute” they used to have at one time as a reason to go by car every day. Even though it would be faster to walk. These are both anecdotes, I’m just saying that it’s easy to get stuck with a car even tough you don’t really need it.

            I feel that owning a car is a weight that pulls you down.

          2. @Erik Johansson
            Most people esp those in the US probably do not live 3 to 7km from their place of work because decent housing is usually located out in the suburbs while their place of work is down town or in the industrial district.
            Besides who would want to live next to a factory or in the shadow of an office high rise?

    2. Also most people who like non-autonomous cars hate the idea of “fewer vehicles”, at least all the ideas of increasing obstructions and restrictions on individual traffic (cars). I prefer to use my car over public transport whenever possible, I see it as part of my life-quality and comfort. It is much more convenient, you have your own seat, music, temperature, all the luggage you want without carrying it on person, etc. etc.

    3. ” fewer vehicles”
      Are you condemning people to freaking public transport?
      Which would incidentally be double ironic because I know for a fact that bus drivers on a regular basis attempt to kill people on the street. so much for safety.

  2. I’ve often thought it stupid that barely dinging a neighboring vehicle in a parking lot can result in hundreds of dollars in damage. Yes definitely, make vehicles softer.

    But don’t make them look like clown cars like that Waymo. Yuck.

    1. I wish they brought back real bumpers and yah I agree Waymo fails hard at industrial design as even the Nissan Juke or those GEM EVs which are glorified golf carts are better looking.

  3. Making driverless cars safer to pedestrians will be counterproductive. Pedestrians will be more willing to take risks, and the car manufacturers will be more tolerant of crap software that is ‘good enough’ in that it avoids ‘most’ pedestrians.

          1. It’s funny but in concept displays they frequently portray driverless cars as having people be able to act like they are at home and not needing seatbelts. Most peculiar how they think inertia and accident will be gone suddenly in the near future. I guess they pair driverless with the simultaneous invention of anti-gravity devices..

    1. @Alphatek
      This is a bizarre hot take that’s got more problems than can be easily unpacked in a comment, so I’m just gonna say this: if you’re so sure that behavior changes due to risk acclimation will completely 100% cancel out safety improvements despite existing improvements to pedestrian safety not coming even close to doing so, please show your work.

  4. There’s a trade off here that’s being ignored and/or glossed over. In the event of an impact, the idea has to be absorbing the impact. Making something too soft is just as bad as making it too hard. If the material is too soft, it’s just going to compress completely and then you’ll receive a much harder impact from whatever harder structure exists underneath. The only way to accomplish something like this would be to add a lot more “crush”of “crumple” space and have multiple layers of impact absorbing material with progressive density and compression strength. That’s going to make the vehicle bigger and heavier. This is why the whole “smaller yet safer car” idea is a fallacy. Bottom line, this is pie in the sky fantasy by people who don’t understand the underlying physics.

      1. Until one triggers by accident or fault, and punches an old lady to death.

        There’s a reason why people have to wear seatbelts in cars with airbags. If you hit the steering column first before the airbag deploys, even if the impact doesn’t kill you the airbag will.

  5. The car in the photo looks like it could safely do no more than 30mph, so yes, it’s safer already, but I’m joining Ken N, let’s separate pedestrians and cars a bit better, and get rid of the now very popular A post that’s so fat and raked back you can hide a truck behind it.
    Increased visibility and reduced speed wil reduce accidents.

  6. After the person has been accelerated by the impact of the car, they need to safely be brought to rest as well. Otherwise you have just invented a stupid catapult, like outboard airbags are.

    Engineer the heroic passer-by who pulls or pushes the person out of the way.

    1. An airbag that catapults you anywhere is poorly designed. Airbags deliberately have holes in them, these were carefully designed and tested to have just the right size. The whole idea is to quickly deflate the bag, so that it doesn’t act like a trampoline.

  7. It cars all end up looking like that google thing people would be throwing themselves under the wheels to end the missery. If the vehicle was impactvabsorbing and prevent instant death would just add further insult.

    Organization spend billions on art and design each year and yet google is allowed to put such a visual insult in a public space..

  8. Making cars softer is a failed concept simply because soft materials still have an elastic rebound in an accident. You do not want your head rebounding off a compressed expandible surface in an accident because when the vehicle stops, your head is now thrown backwards. The ideal material is one that absorbs energy, but does not generate energy while being compressed. That’s why vehicle dashboardwvare made from a foam that disintegrates upon compression. It absorbs the energy of the impact and does not store energy that can throw the occupant after the impact.

    1. We would at best need a viscoelastic material for that. One that absorbs energy by some kind of plastic deformation, but not by destruction of itself. After the impact it (quite slowly) creeps back into it’s original form. Similar to shock absorbers/dampers.

  9. Now are self driving cars going to have a “no dangerous neighborhoods” setting? Because I sure don’t want my wife being routed past the corner of Crack and Eight Ball at two in the morning, no matter how much time it might save her. GPSes do this crap today and a human being can override it with a turn of the steering wheel.

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