For as long as the possibility of self-driving cars has filled the imagination, there have been parallel dreams of what people might do inside their vehicles once freed from the monotony of driving.
When the idea of vehicles that drove themselves took hold in the 1950s—with electric infrastructure embedded in highways as a guiding principle—one particular sketch came to encapsulate notions of how passengers would spend their time: A family sits contentedly around a small table, playing a game of dominoes. If not for the steering wheel behind Dad's left arm, it'd be easy to mistake the setting for this wholesome family activity for a living room instead of a vehicle hurtling down a highway.
As the widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles becomes a more plausible, and perhaps even inevitable, development, auto makers and their tech-minded counterparts have doubled down on interior concepts like the one envisioned six decades ago.
But for all the excitement, these ideas are further away than most people think because they are simply too dangerous for passengers. Accidents that seem minor today take on a whole new level of danger once the passengers move out of a traditional forward-facing belted-in position.
"Some visions of the future give me the chills," said Steven Peterson, vice president of engineering at ZF. "Restraints need to change completely. Small changes to the interior can have a dramatic impact on safety."
Modern-day car interior visions include everything from reclining seats as seen in Volvo's Concept 26, to more radical cabin redesigns that feature mobile offices, swiveling seats, even exercise equipment.
If you look more closely at the 1950s-era rendering, you'll notice that what's missing from the picture is as important as what's presented: None of the family members is wearing a seat belt. The three-point harness wasn't invented until 1959, and airbags didn't arrive for more than a decade later. Seat belts and airbags have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and future-minded cabin designers must account for how to protect occupants who are spun backward, lying down or sitting at desks.
But the process of building and vetting safety systems for modern novel seating positions has barely begun. Experts warn that implementing them without careful consideration of safety could cause more traffic deaths and serious injuries, undermining the promise that self-driving vehicles will be safer than cars driven by humans today.
As industry engineers, regulators, insurance executives and safety advocates embark on the years of research, engineering and testing needed to deliver a future that frees motorists from traditional seating positions, they might start by looking at another picture. One that doesn't depict an idealized future, but one from the present that provides a glimpse of potential dangers.
On Oct. 6, a 2001 Ford Expedition stretch limousine in Schoharie, N.Y., veered down a hill, through a stop sign, into a parking lot, finally coming to rest in a ditch. Seventeen passengers in the vehicle, its driver and two pedestrians were killed, making it the country's deadliest transportation crash in nine years.
Although the limo was not self-driving, it could be a harbinger of what happens when passengers move out of traditional seating positions. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. While no conclusions have been reached, speed, braking, and the vehicle's maintenance history have drawn early focus in a concurrent investigation run by the New York State Police. Another potential factor: Seating positions and seat belts.
"One of the things we look at is to see whether or not the seating configuration may have—may have—contributed to the injuries," said Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the NTSB. "We've had questions on whether or not the seats were equipped with seat belts. … At this point, we're not sure if all the seats or seating positions were equipped with seat belts, and not sure at this point if the seat belts were worn by anyone."
The crash could lend insights on how regulations need to be developed. Safety advocates say current federal motor vehicle safety standards are inadequate for limousines, which are typically built by chopping a regular car in two and lengthening it. Those federal standards apply only to a new car rolling off an assembly line. If side airbags get removed or rendered inoperable during the limousine retrofitting, there's nothing from a regulatory perspective which deems that insufficient.
"Here, the lack of standards becomes clear," said David Zuby, chief research officer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "This horrible crash in New York, that's in part because there's not any occupant protection. So this is a problem that already exists today."
The problem could escalate. Although self-driving vehicles are being developed with the noble idea that they'll dramatically reduce the number of traffic deaths, they will still need to contend with cars driven by humans for decades. Once autonomous cars become widely available, it could still take 30 years for the nation's collective fleet of 260 million human-driven vehicles to be gradually replaced with vehicles equipped with self-driving technology.
Until that happens, passengers in cars with unconventional seating arrangements may be in hazardous positions.
Not only do they vary from optimal positions, researchers from the University of Michigan wrote in September 2016 that "some of them also have the potential to be near-worst-case positions or postures, with G-forces imparted upon occupants during crashes and abrupt stops in ways that are likely to result in more serious injuries than conventional, forward-facing seating."