Google Wants to Protect Pedestrians from Autonomous Cars by Making Them Softer

Waymo's self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid 1 photo
Photo: Waymo
Nobody agrees on how far away we are from the day when autonomous cars will hit the road. Some people seem to believe it's 2020, but as we get closer and closer to 2018, that timeline starts to appear a little too optimistical.
Regardless, most carmakers are hard at work to come up with the most efficient hardware setup and develop the appropriate software, whether they work on it by themselves or together with other tech companies.

Google was one of the first to get involved in what has now become the industry's holy grail (which, at the moment, somehow makes Tesla the Indiana Jones as it's either the closest to getting it or the one shouting the loudest about it). A few months ago, it created a separate entity called Waymo to head the development in this direction, and since then a lot of things have happened.

For one thing, the lovable bubble car that Google has used for so long is gone. The company decided to retire it after many years of service, and Waymo is now using a fleet of Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans, as well as Lexus RX-450h SUVs. However, it might be using some very different vehicles in the future, if this latest patent it filed for is anything to go by.

Regardless of when they make it to the wider audience, the integration of autonomous cars into our lives can't possibly go 100 percent smoothly. There will be incidents, and some of them are going to be serious. The ones everyone fears the most, however, are those involving pedestrians. Uber nearly set the tone for those when its self-driving Volvo XC90 ran a red light and was inches away from hitting a pedestrian crossing the road, but it got lucky.

However, looking out for pedestrians is going to prove an even bigger challenge than trying to decipher the minds of the human drivers sitting behind the wheels of their cars. That's because the behavior of a human being moving on its own two feet is even more unpredictable than when it's driving.

To limit the chances of fatalities, Waymo is proposing a new technology that can alter the stiffness of a vehicle's body. reveals the tech company's patent that sees the vehicle's frontal body parts (hood, bumper and panels) being wound up with help from a series of tension cables.

If the AI detects the vehicle is about to crash, it can control the tension in those cables thus making the car more rigid or less so. If the unfortunate object in front of the car turns out to be a person, the cables will loosen up, allowing the body to absorb the energy from the crash in greater quantity. It will still hurt, but it might not lead to a funeral.

But patents are not to be trusted. Everyone with a silly idea is quick to file for one fearing somebody else might make billions with a similarly silly idea ahead of them. Plus, if you're a tech or automotive company, it's good PR to have lots of patents: it shows your R&D department is earning its pay.
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About the author: Vlad Mitrache
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"Boy meets car, boy loves car, boy gets journalism degree and starts job writing and editing at a car magazine" - 5/5. (Vlad Mitrache if he was a movie)
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