In 2017, almost 6,000 pedestrians were killed by cars in the United States–a 25-year high for the second year in a row. Needless to say, as car companies look toward an autonomous future, safety is a major concern. When building self-driving cars, companies have an opportunity to rethink how to keep both pedestrians and passengers safe–and some of those ideas could improve safety for regular cars right now.
This year, Co.Design asked a handful of design firms to take on the moral dilemma of self-driving car decision-making: What does a car do when it has to choose between saving its passenger and saving a pedestrian? Their solutions included smart roads, flying airbags, and air traffic control-style systems.
But the San Francisco-based design firm Box Clever is focusing on safety first. The studio imagines creating a new layer of public infrastructure in the form of security drones that can warn self-driving cars of things they can’t see. Combined with the use of smart materials in cars themselves that can better absorb the impact of crashes, the studio’s vision doesn’t just apply to a world of autonomy–it could help make our streets safer for pedestrians right now.
Eyes In The Sky
Box Clever thinks drones could act as an extra set of eyes that can monitor difficult intersections and scout the road ahead by looking around corners for any dangerous scenarios. Then, they’d be able to warn vehicles so they can adjust their route. Box Clever founder and creative director Bret Recor thinks these drone scouts could function as either a layer of protection provided for everyone, or as individual cars’ companions on the road. “It’s almost like satellite imagery around you while you’re moving,” he says. “The car has a buddy.”
It’s kind of like Blade Runner, where little drones accompany the characters to capture crime scenes and add a layer of surveillance. And it could work both in a dense urban area and in more rural places as well. In a city, these kinds of drones make more sense as an extra layer of infrastructure, providing significantly more information about the overall system and how it’s working. Because they’re mobile, they’d be able to redistribute themselves throughout the day based on traffic patterns. In more remote areas, the drones might act like a self-driving car’s buddy. “It’s able to go higher and out in front and potentially detect other things that are off the road,” Recor says. Like, say, a deer that’s about to dart across a vehicle’s path.
With any technology that records video of people in public, there are concerns about security and privacy. But the system isn’t so far removed from the CCTV cameras that already track traffic patterns and pedestrian movements. It’s just airborne, which affords a wider variety of angles and flexibility. But there is something about the idea of flying drones that are monitoring people’s movement that’s a little unsettling. It’s a trade-off: safety, or privacy?
Smart Materials And Shape-Shifting Cars
Recor and his team also are rethinking how the safety features of cars themselves are designed. Take the exterior shell. As smart materials advance, it may be feasible for a car’s exoskeleton to shift into a softer material during a crash. Metal that changes shape in response to heat is already being used in buildings and airplanes. Recor also points to elastomeric materials, similar to rubber, as having promising impact absorption abilities. And why not extend the airbag to its logical conclusion? He envisions a car encased in a material that can inflate–almost like the friendly robot in the Disney film Big Hero 6.
Cars today are designed to absorb impact by distributing forces through the vehicle’s skeleton. But this engineering convention is based on a present reality: that passengers sit in static chairs facing forward. When people are facing all kinds of ways in autonomous vehicles, the design of safety mechanisms and distribution of impact will need to be radically different. “You’re not going to be forward facing–that’s something we see a lot in future car concepts,” Recor says. “I think that’s fantastic until you crash. The safety devices can’t accommodate every angle.”
Maybe that means you have an entirely new kind of seat belt. Recor imagines what he calls a “magic blanket”–some kind of larger device that seals over you when you’re sitting and uses weight distribution sensors to orient your in the safest way if there’s a crash.
Sensors could also detect how people are sitting inside and optimize the smart materials for side, front, or rear impact depending on where the passenger is sitting. “I think the Transformers of the ’80s cartoons and movies is more of a reality in the next few years,” Recor says. “Why can’t a side panel actually have a way to position itself for impact rather than just being static and being a crumple zone?”
Box Clever’s emphasis on safety inside autonomous cars underlines a truth about today. While it’s compelling to think about the safety of our streets in an automated future, we’ve overlooked just how dangerous our roads are now. While drone infrastructure and cars made of shape-shifting materials are fascinating approaches to safety in a world where autonomous vehicles dominate, new ideas about car design in general could make our roads safer right now. Six thousand deaths is 6,000 too many.
This story is part of Co.Design’s new conceptual design series, Provocation. Previously I’ve written about Astro Studio’s illuminated smart roads. Check out the rest of the series as it’s published here.