The enormous changes underway in the automotive industry will provide new opportunities for occupant safety in cars.

The launch of automated vehicle functions is transforming the way in which cars are designed and marketed and coincides with the introduction of electric drivetrains. Together, these technological step-changes have the potential to alter vehicle architectures in ways that will change the way people can use interiors.

Electric drivetrains will enable car designers to eliminate conventional transmission tunnels and introduce flat floor concepts with flexible seating arrangements. With automated driving functions that could enable drivers to safety disengage from driving tasks for periods, automakers are likely to place more emphasis on interiors that can transform cars into mobile living spaces.

Broaden the range of crash scenarios

The questions that safety engineers must now considerare: How much flexibility will occupants be given and which use cases can be supported? People no longer sitting in the nominal position can create additional load case configurations and broaden the range of crash scenarios. Significant changes to occupant safety systems could be required.

“The introduction of automated vehicles means occupant protection systems will evolve, not disappear,” says Frank Laakmann, engineering director for occupant safety at ZF TRW. “The fact that automated vehicles will encounter manual vehicles in traffic for some time is a factor, but the main driver will be new interior concepts. Giving occupants more freedom may requires new airbag concepts and seat belts with additional functionalities.”

Trust in their brands

For certain scenarios and load cases it may be possible to design improved safety concepts by modifying existing seat belt and airbag technologies. This could mean different bag shapes, sizes and positions. “Automakers will want to maintain trust in their brands when they launch automated vehicles,” says Laakman. “Providing systems that help protect people in these new scenarios and load cases will be an important aspect to achieve this.”

Companies will also look at new ways of using environmental sensors. At present, camera, radar and lidar are generally used to support driving tasks. Going forward, it will be increasingly attractive to use these sensors for occupant sensing, further improving the ability to work with other vehicle systems to further help improve protection for occupants. Consumers will expect new vehicles to have the capability to see, think and act. The way in which the industry thinks about vehicle safety will likely change as a result.

“We have been looking at how our R&D will change as well,” says Laakmann. “We are working to make safety systems more cognitive by combining all the sensing and computing capabilities and to make safety integral to everything an automated vehicle can do. It is only by thinking in this way that the auto industry can prepare for the exponential change that is starting to happen.”

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