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Occupant Safety, Redefined

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Autonomous driving provides new freedom to drivers and passengers: for example, to lie down and relax or work during the trip. Four reasons why safety systems need to be rethought and what ZF has already achieved.
Stefan Schrahe, September 07, 2017
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Stefan Schrahe has been writing about everything four-wheeled for three decades now. In his leisure time, he enjoys traveling by bike - though he also prefers motorized ones.
Hands on the steering wheel, feet on the pedals, facing forward: Drivers have been sitting this way since the very beginning of automotive travel. “Because the position has always been the same, a largely standardized safety architecture was developed,” says Swen Schaub, ZF expert on occupant safety. But there will be a lot of changes in the vehicles of the future that will be on the road autonomously. On rotatable seats, drivers and passengers will be able to sit as they do today or face each other, and they will be able to do both with the backrest upright or in a reclined position. In spite of such flexible seating positions, how can we achieve at least the same safety level we are familiar with today? Here are four reasons why safety systems need to undergo significant further development:

720
720 hours is the amount of time an employee in the U.S. spends sitting in a car each year on average.
That is much more time than they spend watching movies or meeting with friends.

1. New types of cars require special passive safety systems

1. New types of cars require special passive safety systems

Specialists from ZF have studied how different seating positions affect the protection function of today’s conventional restraint systems. For example, what happens if the driver has a tablet on his or her lap during the trip? What happens if he or she is sitting in the vehicle in the usual position or with the driver’s seat turned to the side or toward the rear? All scenarios show that there are sometimes significant changes in the performance of the safety system. If the driver’s seat is turned 180 degrees, some protective systems can no longer be used in a way that makes sense.
The realization is as follows: In the future, safety systems must be more greatly integrated into the overall concept of the interior. Airbags will no longer only be deployed from the steering wheel or dashboard but also from the roof or from the seats. To make every seating and reclining position as safe as possible, ZF has entered into a partnership with interior specialist Faurecia. The first results of the cooperation, which began in early May 2017, can already be seen four months later at the IAA: a jointly developed concept seat including belts, belt tensioners and airbags with many design innovations.
© ZF
New freedom in the car of the future requires new systems.

2. Crash protection for batteries in electric vehicles

2. Crash protection for batteries in electric vehicles

It’s not only the megatrend of “autonomous driving” that requires completely new safety concepts; electromobility also demands a change in thinking. After all, increasing electrification of the driveline is leading to new vehicle architectures. Because range remains a key factor for success, as much space as possible must be given to the battery. A problem with this is that batteries in areas that are typically impacted in crashes are a great safety risk; they need special protection. One solution is to use cameras, radar and LIDAR to detect imminent impact and activate external airbags milliseconds before impact. These airbags would simultaneously protect the sensitive batteries and the occupants.
© ZF
Cars or people movers: The safety of occupants in autonomous vehicles must be reconsidered

3. Building trust in autonomous systems

3. Building trust in autonomous systems

When new technologies are introduced, there must be no loss in safety because the public is particularly sensitive to such problems. For example, a single fatal accident involving a self-driving car in the U.S. in 2016 attracted media attention worldwide and raised doubts about the technology. It seems a paradox that at the same time we accept thousands of people being killed each year in accidents involving vehicles driven by people. Frank Laakmann, Engineering Director Occupant Safety at ZF, knows this challenge. “When our customers roll out automated vehicles, they want to maintain confidence in their brands. To do so, they need to offer systems that protect people in the new scenarios,” he says. From the perspective of Swen Schaub, the fact that ZF develops technologies for autonomous driving and has components for electric drives in its portfolio is advantageous for securing its position as a technology leader in safety systems. “We are working to cross-link sensor and processing functions in order to intelligently control the safety equipment,” he says. “The future belongs to these cognitive safety systems.”

4. Organizing the transition to the new era of mobility

4. Organizing the transition to the new era of mobility

But why do we need new safety concepts if autonomous driving leads to fewer accidents? The simple answer to this question is that even in the era of self-driving vehicles, and even more so in the transition period, it is not possible to prevent all accidents. Although automated systems are superior to human abilities on all cognitive levels – from seeing to making decisions to initiating a response – experts believe it will take about 15 years before fully automated driving becomes a reality. For ZF safety expert Frank Laakmann, one thing is certain: "With the introduction of automated cars, occupant protection systems do not disappear, but continue to evolve.” In the development of new concepts, Laakmann must take into account that there will continue to be cars steered by people operating side-by-side with self-driving vehicles for a long time to come. The greatest possible passive accident prevention thus will remain an extremely important issue for decades.