Waymo self-driving car prototype

Collapsible self-driving car design patented by Google’s Waymo

Image credit: Waymo

Google’s self-driving car spin-off, Waymo, has patented a design for a vehicle with an exterior which “softens” to protect pedestrians and cyclists in the event of a collision.

When the majority of cars are connected and self-driving, the roads will likely become safer for drivers, with their vehicles in constant communication with each other to remain a safe distance apart to better prevent deadly collisions. While self-driving cars will be capable of avoiding obstacles – including pedestrians – humans will remain unconnected and thus still vulnerable to collisions with vehicles.

Google, and later its self-driving car spin-off Waymo, has been working on solutions to this problem of safety for several years. Last year, Google was granted a patent for “human flypaper” to protect pedestrians. Described as an “adhesive layer positioned on the front end of the vehicle”, the aim of the innovation was to “bond” pedestrians to the vehicle so that rather than being thrown off the vehicle to the ground, they remain stuck to the vehicle until it comes to a stop.

One year on, Waymo has developed an alternative design to protect the safety of pedestrians, cyclists and other obstacles around its self-driving cars. The company has patented a design for collapsible vehicles which automatically adjust their external rigidity to reduce danger during collisions.

The design features a body held together with “tension members”: rods, springs or cables which slacken or tighten to adjust the car’s rigidity. If the car’s various sensors detect that it is about to collide with another object, its rigidity can be accordingly adapted.

“The vehicle’s processor may control a mechanism that is capable of cutting, releasing or loosening the tension cables in order to reduce the rigidity of the vehicle’s surface and thereby reduce the amount of damage the vehicle may cause,” the patent explains.

“For example, the vehicle may reduce tension to one or more cables if the vehicle is about to come into [contact] with a bicyclist or pedestrian, while the vehicle may maintain tension to the cables if the vehicle is about to contact another vehicle.”

Waymo suggests that this system could be used not just in self-driving cars, but also in trucks, buses, boats, recreational vehicles, theme park rides, agricultural equipment, trams, golf carts, trains and trolleys.

It is not known how effective this system may prove at protecting drivers, pedestrians and cyclists in real-world situations.

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