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Waymo is Designing Collapsible Cars That Crash into Pedestrians Gently

Waymo self-driving car cruising on a street in August.

Waymo self-driving car cruising on a street in August. // Sundry Photography/

Waymo has taken Newton’s third law—every action has an equal and opposite reaction—to heart. A patent awarded to the self-driving-car company on Aug. 8, reported by Silicon Beat, proposes a new car shell design that “softens” before a crash to cushion its impact on unfortunate victims. The idea is that if a car can be less rigid during a collision, the accident won’t cause as much damage to whatever—or whoever—it collided with.

“The force of the vehicle’s impact is a primary factor in the amount of damage that is caused by the vehicle,” the patent says. “Accordingly, it is desirable to design a vehicle that can reduce the force of impact experienced during a collision.”

The design uses several “tension members” (such as cables) to keep the car’s exterior rigid in normal conditions. If the car’s sensors detect an imminent collision, however, the car can then cut, release, or loosen the cables to collapse different parts, such as its hood, panels, and bumpers, in response to the direction, speed, and even classification (biker, pedestrian, tree, etc) of the oncoming object. As Silicon Beat points out, the patent doesn’t address whether the design would make people inside the car safer too. (We have contacted Waymo for comment.)

This isn’t the first idea that Waymo has proposed to protect pedestrians from autonomous vehicular injury. In May of last year, Google, from which Waymo spun off, was awarded a different patent that proposed adding an “adhesive layer…similar to flypaper” to its cars so that pedestrians who were hit would stick to the car instead of bouncing off and suffering further injuries when they hit the road. But a car that hits you gently enough not to hurt you in the first place would be an even better option.

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