WASHINGTON—Self-driving vehicles may not cause accidents, but they surely will be involved in them.
Experts believe vehicles that can route themselves, sense their environment and communicate with infrastructure and other cars and trucks will dramatically reduce accidents and an estimated 40,000 annual traffic deaths.
But the U.S. Department of Transportation will require the same level of occupant crash protection from autonomous vehicles as it does from their conventional counterparts.
So safety systems and structural designs must be reimagined for self-driving vehicles that will differ from human-driven cars and trucks.
The traditional way to develop vehicle crashworthiness standards is for the government to conduct research and issue rules.
The challenge for autonomous vehicle developers is meeting crash standards without an approved crash-test process or next-generation safety standards when there is no consensus on how interior seating will be arranged or how it will interact with occupant restraints.
Some companies are trying to shape those standards so they can get a head start in the competitive autonomous vehicle market, while others are waiting for government rules to coalesce before they fully commit to specific seating arrangements, according to former safety regulators and people involved in one of those efforts.
"Some of the smaller folks are willing to take that risk and try and plant some sort of new requirement because it might behoove their interior design," a former NHTSA senior safety engineer told Automotive News on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize client relationships. "You want to ideally have a crash-test standard that you have already anticipated. And those people are on budget constraints where they are hoping their design solution is going to be acceptable for whatever new regulation or standard is anticipated to come down the pike. They try to influence them, so their solution will work well."
With the help of Humanetics, a leading maker of crash-test dummies and instrumentation, a handful of auto makers and suppliers have formed the Advanced Driving Systems Consortium to develop safety and testing standards for new seating configurations.
The goal is to accelerate agreement on a common standard that NHTSA and the rest of industry can use for next-generation vehicles.
Otherwise, said Humanetics CEO Christopher O'Connor, "every car company could do something different and it's like the Wild West. Everybody would have a different test, a different process. And how would you know what is right or wrong? And God forbid, if somebody gets killed, they'd come back and say, 'Well, you didn't do the test as good as GM did, or Volvo or Tesla did it.'?"
O'Connor said several safety-conscious auto makers and tech startups interested in near-term deployment of autonomous vehicles approached Humanetics for help in accelerating standards development for new seating configurations because the company is at the center of the safety ecosystem, working with automakers, regulators, universities, medical institutions and others.
The consortium—BMW, Jaguar Land Rover, self-driving vehicle developer Zoox and Tier 1 suppliers Faurecia and Autoliv—has identified reclining and rear-facing positions as likely seating configurations in self-driving cars around which safety standards need to be developed, said Mark Rosekind, chief safety innovation officer at Zoox and a former NHTSA administrator.
Zoox, of San Francisco, is developing a vehicle with carriage seating, with occupants facing each other on either end. Campfire seating—in which people face each other in a circular or square pattern—is another arrangement the broader autonomous vehicle sector is considering.
None of those positions is necessarily safe in an accident because current standards for seats, seat belts and airbags are based on passengers sitting in an upright position and facing forward.
O'Connor said the consortium will use virtual models and modified crash-test dummies to test and gather data this year on how the interior systems hold occupants under the new conditions.
Repeated testing will be used to refine the safety systems until the vehicles offer the same level of protection as today's cars and trucks. The Advanced Driving Systems Consortium has repeatedly briefed NHTSA about its plans, and it hopes NHTSA will use the group's seat configurations and standards to set industry regulations, O'Connor said.
Last year, NHTSA issued a $900,000 contract to the Transportation Research Center, an independent test operation and proving ground in East Liberty, Ohio, to study the biomechanics of autonomous vehicle seating scenarios using cadavers. No one at the agency was available to discuss the project because of the federal government shutdown.
The consortium, which has met dozens of times since launching in June, is being kept small at the start to maintain nimbleness, but could add members, O'Connor said.
Rosekind said, "When I was administrator, I talked about how critical the collaboration was between different groups, but at the same time there were opportunities where you didn't have to wait (for regulation). I think this is a great example of that.
"The idea is we'll do the work we're focused on, we'll stay in coordination with other groups who are working on new crashworthiness seating arrangements. And that can help set the foundation for any future regulatory action that NHTSA chooses to take."
Large auto makers are taking a wait-and-see approach on developing interior safety systems because they want to see how regulators approach crash test standards for autonomous vehicles, the former NHTSA engineer said. Instead, the source said, they are making incremental changes that could be useful in future seating arrangements.
General Motors, for example, is using in some models a head-knock airbag that deploys out of a center seat bolster and acts like an airbag sandwich to protect occupants from a potentially fatal head-to-head blow, while some Ford Motor Co. models have available second-row seat belts with an airbag built into the belt's fabric.
A biomechanics subcommittee of automotive engineering group SAE International is also studying how to develop collision standards for new seating configurations.
Some safety advocates say the SAE process is a better way to advance voluntary industry standards because it is more inclusive and transparent than those developed by industry companies.
The regulatory and voluntary SAE processes for setting standards are better at achieving consensus than those of a splinter group, which raises questions about the Advanced Driving Systems Consortium's motives, Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said after being briefed by a reporter about the effort.
"You can't have it both ways," Levine said. "You can't say, 'We're going to work on a standard with the government that's going to apply to everyone who uses nontraditional seats, and we won't give it to the government until we make sure that it's good for us and our companies and our proprietary technology,' and then force it down the throats of everyone else who wasn't a part of this process.
"It smacks of an intent to do something behind closed doors ... when we're talking about occupant protection for future vehicles that need as much public confidence in their safety as possible."
Rosekind said the Advanced Driving Systems Consortium is providing a missing element.
"There are a variety of standard-setting groups with their own procedures, timelines and outcomes. This coalition is comprised of companies developing the actual innovations and therefore have better understanding of the issues, uses and needs of the effort," he argued.
It "can provide the data it generates to standard-setting groups, NHTSA, New Car Assessment Program groups or produce its own usable output. Lots of future paths are possible once meaningful data are collected."
Levine said the small-group approach suggests "profit and proprietary interests are being put ahead of traditional mechanisms for creating safer standards. This sounds to me like a few firms want to get their fingerprints, and a head start, on mandating something different to the competition."
David Friedman, vice president of advocacy for Consumer Reports and a former acting administrator at NHTSA, said the Advanced Driving Systems Consortium could provide value if the data it gathers are credible, widely shared, involve third-party validation and are "not used to argue for weaker safety standards."