Google spinoff Waymo patents softer self-driving cars to protect pedestrians

Photo by Sean O’Kane / The Verge

If self-driving cars really do take over our roads then things are going to be a lot safer — at least for people inside them. Vehicles will be able to constantly communicate with one another to prevent crashes, but what about those poor, unconnected humans? Or humans who might wander into traffic by accident, or decide to test the reflexes of Mr. Robo-Car for fun? Well, Google’s self-driving spinoff Waymo has one potential answer: softer cars.

As spotted by The Mercury News and Quartz, Waymo recently patented a car design in which the vehicle is held together internally with a number of “tension members.” These members — which could be cables, rods, or springs — would slacken or tighten to adjust the car’s “external rigidity” as needed. If sensors detect the vehicle is about to “come into contact with another object” they would change accordingly. If it’s another car, keep the outside stiff; it’s a human, loosen up as appropriate.

An illustration from the Waymo patent. The horizontal lines represent the adjustable “tension members” that would loosen or tighten to change the external rigidity of the car (the thick line).
Image: Waymo

“For example, if it is determined that a bicyclist is about to strike the hood and front bumper of the vehicle, the tension may be reduced for the tension members associated with the hood and front bumper, so as to reduce the rigidity of those surfaces,” says the patent. The end result would hopefully be a lighter impact for those hit by the car. Think of it like a metal beanbag that crumples to accommodate a new, unexpected passenger.

Of course, the usual caveats for patents apply here. This is nothing more than a particularly detailed back-of-the-napkin sketch at this point. There are no tests showing whether such a system could help save pedestrians’ lives, or whether it would even be safe for people inside the vehicle. But at least it’s more sensible than one of Google’s earlier ideas for protecting walkers from self-driving cars: covering the outside of the vehicle with adhesive to ensure anyone it collides with doesn’t fly off and hurt themselves.


Now the car will be Waymo safer. Or they could call it Waymo Safety TM
I love their name, you can always make some silly word play with it.

This is nothing more than a particularly detailed back-of-the-napkin sketch at this point.

Yeah no shit. I have no idea how they can ever hope to pull this off the way they describe it and without also being too ugly. Will it even make any difference? I don’t know how people can have patents approved with so little…

Keep in mind they have 20 years to make this happen. We’ve seen big advancements in vehicle safety is the last 20 years, nothing this extreme.

But then, this deduction is based on 5 minutes of me using what I’ve been taught in engineering school… Could be way off.

They’ve only applied for a patent. One was not granted. And hopefully one won’t be unless they can truly demonstrate it working on some level. Napkin sketches don’t cut it.

Oops, my bad, it wasn’t immediately clear from the way the article and its headline have been written…

hopefully one won’t be unless they can truly demonstrate it working on some level

That’s not at all the way the US Patent system works. People have patents granted for abstract ideas all the time without actually "inventing" anything real. It’s incredibly broken.

so if AI "drivers" are so safe and smart, why do they need cushioning? especially when the human drivers’ cars are so metal and hurt-y when they hit you for the last 80 years?

They don’t need it, but it sure is a nice option to have if it isn’t prohibitively expensive.

The cars should be able to detect people’s smartphones to help avoid pedestrians, bicyclists and such. And since we’ll have way fewer accidents, why not make cars out of actual soft cushiony materials?

I was thinking the same thing. Almost everyone has a smartphone now. Of course they’d need redundancy for those who don’t but this could help.

Hey guyyys, the whole make the cars not run over people thing isn’t working out..why don’t we just make it feel like being hit with a 2,000 pound nerf rocket instead?

That sounds more fun than it should.

Seems like this kind of tech should be focused on human driven cars…

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