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 will 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 also enable drivers to 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 for safety engineers are: How much flexibility for occupants and which use cases can be supported? People no longer sitting in the nominal position will create additional load case configurations and broaden the range of crash scenarios. Significant changes to occupant safety systems will 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 requires new airbag concepts and seatbelts with additional functionalities.”

Trust in their brands

For certain scenarios and load cases it may be possible to design an effective safety concept by modifying existing seatbelt and airbag technologies. This could mean different bag shapes, sizes and positions. Most automakers already seek to offer occupant safety that exceeds the standard legal and NCAP requirements. “Automakers will want to maintain that 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 of 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 more, maximizing their 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 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 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 this way that the auto industry can prepare for the exponential change that is starting to happen.”

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