Can we do without airbags in self-driving vehicles?

AI : threat or opportunity for airbags?

Since the first news reports on “driverless” cars that are being tested on the roads, when we are conducting airbags market‘s strategic reviews, every now and then someone would raise their hand and ask: “shouldn’t we consider autonomous vehicles to be a threat to our airbag business if tomorrow artificial intelligence and computers will enable automobiles to talk to each other and avoid collisions?”

Well, that’s a fair question. Will we need passive safety systems in the future, if our car is able to detect early on a possible collision, and slows down or stop the vehicle before it happens? Probably not. Think of automated trains or subway cars today, for which all traffic is controlled and managed in a room full of computers, do we need to wear a seatbelt? And we don’t need airbags either, because the environment is set, with no risk of unwanted/unplanned change to it.

But this is not likely to happen soon on our roads. Considering the amount of time, efforts and money that will be required to actually have 100% of automobiles connected and able to avoid any collision or any crash due to external factor (weather, obstacles, etc…). This, in addition to other fundamental aspects such as infrastructures planning and legislation, and especially the unavoidable debate on liability.

How to adapt future airbags to passengers’ every move?

Obviously, there will be autonomous vehicles in a near future, and unfortunately there will continue to be accidents and, with them, the necessity to ensure appropriate passive safety in line with the challenges that autonomous driving will pose. As soon as vehicles and legislation will enable drivers to take their eyes off the road and do something else the passive safety systems will have to accommodate a larger cabin space, and a much higher number of possible occupant’s positions. In other words, we will either need a lot more airbags – of higher surface/volume – inside the car, and hope that the impact and the actual position of occupants will be compatible with the layout of cushions. Second option, we will individually carry a personal safety system that will deploy around our body a huge airbag to protect us whatever the conditions at the time of accident… Oops, now I am going too far!

The solution may actually be in between. Current simulations and studies on pre-crash, accidents and injury types in case of semi or fully automated driving are showing that the restraint systems will need to be a lot more adaptive, capable to inflate at the right volume according to occupant’s position: real-time monitoring systems are on their way. In different seating configurations versus today (relax position, lounge configuration, …), then the restraints systems will have to be located in different places to prevent occupants hitting each other in case of accident. In this case the seats will play a major role in hosting appropriate restraint systems, 4 or 5 points seat belts and most certainly side airbags, to protect head and thorax for which simulations predict a higher likelihood of injuries.  What simulations and studies already clearly show, is that having “just seat belts” will not be sufficient, and additional protection and impact absorption will be critical to reduce injuries.

Can we do without airbags in self-driving vehicles?

NO, I think, is the answer to the question: self-driving vehicles will not hit the roads without airbags anytime soon, well, quiet the contrary!! There are challenges ahead, rethinking the technologies, making them more compact, and able to fit in new places, but logically airbags will remain a critical component to automotive safety. For classical and new applications   – pre-crash positioning for example – we will most probably even see more of them in future automobiles.