What Will Safety Look Like Once Cars Are Smart?

Seat belt Testing at Autoliv’s Technology Center in Auburn Hills, Michigan (Image credit: Autoliv)

While computer-assisted controls promise to make driving safer, the nature of accidents will change, not simply go away. Consumer expectations for those crash experiences will change, too. 

“We will see customers have a need for not just protection from severe injury, but from cuts and bruises, too,” explained Ola Bostrom, Head of Research at Autoliv, the Sweden-based market leader in manufacturing active and passive safety systems. 

Bostrom leads an initiative within the company to innovate for this future, supported by a diverse scientific advisory board populated by experts from University of Virginia, Leed’s University and Google, engagement with MIT and other universities, and Autoliv’s participation in research projects like next year’s test of 100 fully-autonomous Volvos on the streets of Gothenburg.

To understand what the innovation may entail, it helps to start with seat belts. 

A seatbelt is an all-purpose safety device, designed to prevent fatal injuries in many different types of crashes. It can leave people with broken bones, but that’s a small price to pay for surviving the unpredictability of accidents. Seat belts have saved perhaps as many as a million lives since Saab was first to make them standard in its cars in 1958 (Volvo introduced 3-point belts a year later, which are still in use today).

Every automotive safety innovation that has followed has addressed some subset of those various accident profiles, improving both the quantity and quality of survivable experiences. 

That evolution will continue as cars get “smarter,” whether in executing individual actions as they do today, like lane changes or parking, or become fully autonomous, which could be right around the corner, according to Bostrom. 

“We will have fewer injuries, and they’ll be different,” he said. “So this will change safety design inside the cabin. Crashes are also becoming more predictable, which means we will have more knowledge of when and where they happen, not just why.”

“This may change how we look at safety by prompting more innovations that provide active prevention.” 

That last part is interesting, because ‘safety’ is a social construct, not just an aggregation of numbers. Bostrom is also watching how consumers value and experience it. 

“You could make cars incredibly safe right now, but they’d also cost a lot, and use a lot of energy,” Bostrom said. “And, right or wrong, consumers perceive that they are in control of their safety when they drive, at least up to a point.” 

“Today, a seatbelt ‘says’ safety, but how will people feel safe in a car that operates very differently than vehicles do today?” 

It’s interesting that one of the places Bostrom is looking for design ideas is the world of sports medicine, which has a deep experience preventing and treating repetitive injuries.

“Drivers and passengers will have higher expectations for what they experience, and we want to be sure to innovate solutions to meet them.”

“The definition of ‘crash’ is going to change, along with our perceptions of what safety means.”

[Originally published on July 21, 2016]