In a world with self-driving cars, Google envisions the inevitable: accidents involving pedestrians. But the firm is exploring an unusual solution. Think flypaper.
The company received a patent Tuesday describing a way to reduce pedestrian injuries in an accident with a robotic vehicle. The impact of the crash, Google suggests, would expose a coating that glues the person to the front of the car.
“The adhesive layer may be a very sticky material and operate in a manner similar to flypaper, or double-sided duct tape,” the patent said.
In its patent, Google acknowledged that robot cars will hit pedestrians — until the technology gets to the point that the vehicles can “avoid all accidents.”
Today, when a car runs into a pedestrian, it often carries the person along until the driver brakes, throwing the victim from the vehicle, possibly leading to further injury as they hit the road or some other hard surface, or get hit by another car, the patent said. But that doesn’t have to happen.
“The front region of the vehicle may be coated with a specialized adhesive that adheres to a pedestrian, and thus holds the pedestrian on the vehicle in the unfortunate event that the front of the vehicle comes into contact with the pedestrian,” the patent said. “The adhesion of the pedestrian to the vehicle may prevent the pedestrian from bouncing off.”
An eggshell-like layer covering the adhesive would protect the sticky surface during everyday driving, but shatter in an accident to reveal the glue.
Google isn’t the first to think about new ways to protect pedestrians from cars. Two major car companies have come up with systems of their own. Some European Jaguar models use small explosive charges to push the car’s hood up several inches in a collision with a person, softening the victim’s impact. In Volvo’s V40, a “pedestrian air bag” deploys along the base of the windshield, where struck pedestrians often suffer head injuries.
The Google patent comes at a time of rising pedestrian traffic fatalities, with preliminary data suggesting a 10 percent increase nationally last year from 4,884 deaths in 2014, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Distracted driving, and more cars on the roads, are probable factors behind the increase, said association spokeswoman Kara Macek.
A Google spokeswoman said the existence of a patent doesn’t necessarily mean a new product is coming. “We hold patents on a variety of ideas,” she said. “Some of those ideas later mature into real products and services, some don’t.”
Stanford School of Law professor and autonomous car expert Bryant Walker Smith praised Google — once he stopped laughing about the patent.
“The idea that cars should be safe for people other than the ones in them is the next generation of automotive safety,” Smith said. “Manufacturers have gotten remarkably good at protecting the occupants of the vehicle, but there’s been much less attention to protecting the people outside. I applaud anybody for thinking, as they should, about people outside of the vehicle.”
But, Smith said, Google’s patent highlights a problem central to safety engineering: solutions create their own concerns. Air bags save lives but can cause injury or death, for example, and seat belts sometimes keep people restrained when they’d be better off ejected, he said.
“If you had a pedestrian stuck on a car that then crashed into something else, that could be worse than if the pedestrian was thrown to the side or thrown over the car. It could also be better. It’s very dependent on the chaos of the situation,” Smith said. “The history of progress is replacing one set of problems with another set of problems and just really hoping that your new set of problems in aggregate is less than your original problem.”
As for removing a pedestrian stuck on a car’s hood, the patent included an option to use a “releasable adhesive” that would allow the person to be unstuck “after a period of time.”
Source: The Mercury News