Waymo patent would make cars safer by making them softer

August 16, 2017

Pedestrians are in trouble. Between 2015 and 2016, the U.S. saw an 11 percent uptick in pedestrian deaths, and there's no sign that the trend is changing course. 

What's an automaker to do? If you're Ford, you design cars to do a better job of detecting pedestrians. If you're Waymo (which isn't necessarily an automaker...yet), you design cars that are pedestrian-friendly in other ways, like being softer. 

Yes, Waymo has filed a patent for a softer car that could potentially cause less damage to pedestrians in the event of a collision. 

Adapting vehicles to be kinder to human bodies isn't a new idea. Volvo created a pedestrian airbag back in 2012, and plenty of automakers have created semi-autonomous software capable of spotting pedestrians in the road. Before it was Waymo, Google's self-driving car project even patented a flypaper-like device to adhere pedestrians to vehicles, minimizing opportunities for further injuries after a collision.

This new patent is a bit different--though in fairness, it's not as wacky as it might sound. Waymo isn't pioneering the development of new materials that would make a marshmallow-soft vehicle, as tasty as that might sound. Instead, Waymo's patent involves autonomous driving software that makes adjustments to a vehicle's body when the vehicle collides with a pedestrian. 

The patent describes a car with body parts attached by cables. Under normal circumstances, those cables remain rigid, and the body remains as sturdy as that of a conventional car. However, when the software determines that a pedestrian has been hit, it makes rapid adjustments to those cables, absorbing some of the impact. 

To hear it described, it sounds a bit like a trampoline set too close to the ground. A person falling onto the trampoline is going to collide with the ground regardless, but the tension of the trampoline's fabric will lessen the impact and thus, the opportunity for injury. 

Like many patents, this one may never be used in a practical application. But at least it's an interesting concept.  

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