Next Step in Car Safety? How to Protect Distracted “Drivers”

By: Bridget Clerkin October 11, 2018
Researchers at Toyota theorize that the passive nature of riding in a self-driving vehicle may be more dangerous than we thought.
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It’s no secret that autonomous cars are quickly making their way onto our roads. But before we can fully embrace our non-driving future, we need to figure out how to brace for its impact.

Freed from the responsibilities of manning a car—including the need to even look where a vehicle is going—Toyota believes humans in autonomous vehicles will react differently in the case of a crash.

New research and testing performed by the major car company demonstrates the theory that already-distracted riders will double-down on their digital indulgences once computers are capable enough to take over at the wheel.

With eyes glued to a screen, or perhaps even resting while traveling, passengers of the future could rob themselves of the precious milliseconds of awareness that an accident is imminent—and any preparations for impact that the body could make in that time.

Using 87 volunteers ranging in age, body shape, and size, Toyota ran an experiment based on this theory at the University of Michigan’s Mcity testing grounds for autonomous cars. Passengers believed they were participating in a “comfort study,” so they weren’t expecting the test driver to suddenly make a string of extreme moves like hard braking or quick lane changes.

Surprised and under duress, the bodies moved in so many different ways that the study’s leader, Jason Hallman, said the research team could not identify any patterns in their reactions. The results make it even more difficult to plan future safety features in cars designed to hold increasingly distracted “drivers,” he said.

Toyota will release its full findings in October, but Hallman told Automotive News that the inconclusive nature of the study will send his team “back to the drawing board.”

They’ll likely meet the interior design team there, too.

The autonomous nature of future vehicles has opened up entirely new worlds of possibility for a car’s insides. Many autonomous car developers have already begun sending steering wheel- and pedal-free autos out onto the streets. That newly freed space—along with the freedom from paying attention to the road—has inspired a multitude of novel layouts for interior vehicle design.

But how those new spaces will affect the placement of seatbelts, airbags, and other safety precautions is just another future impact that, as of now, we’re unprepared for.

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