Waymo’s Future Self-Driving Cars Could Crash Softly

Self-driving cars can make travelling on four-wheels quicker and safer, but that won’t mean they are immune to colliding with a distracted pedestrian stepping out onto the street. Waymo wants to make these collisions safer.

Google’s autonomous driving spinoff secured a patent on August 8 for reducing surface rigidity of a vehicle.  The patent notes that vehicles cause serious harm and that the force of impact is a “primary factor” in the amount of damage they can cause. As such, Waymo has plans to design a modifiable vehicle that can curb that harm.

The patent details a kind of car technology and material that would use sensory detection to foresee a collision with a pedestrian, cyclist or animal, and cushion the car’s impact by automatically altering “the rigidity of the vehicle’s surface,” thereby softening the blow.

The future design would rely on tension members such as cables and rods to keep the car’s hard shell sturdy, but within an instant could be cut, released or loosened to change the vehicle’s surface and crumple the hood, bumper or side panels.

One example in the patent is that of a cyclist who is about to strike the hood and front bump of the car. The tensions members associated with these two parts would be altered to reduce their rigidity.

According to the patent, the degree in which the car’s exterior is altered will depend on what the vehicle is about to hit. However, ‘softening’ won’t kick-in during collisions with trucks or cars.

One thing the patent doesn’t describe is how the driver or car passengers would be affected when the car they’re travelling in collapses in a crash.