Part I in a new series on inclusive design and research on AVs.
An eight-pound newborn, a pregnant woman, an older adult in a wheelchair: How do vehicles design for the safety of the vast range of body sizes, types, and abilities? Currently, the only adult crash dummy testing required for vehicles represents the 50th percentile male and excludes testing for bodies of different heights, weights, and shapes. This means that there are major safety disparities for vehicle passengers and drivers.
A report by the American Journal of Public Health found that female drivers are at a 47% greater risk of injury or death when involved in car crashes, because seatbelts, airbags, and other life-saving devices are not designed for their bodies. Over 120,000 children are injured in car accidents each year and car crashes are the leading cause of death in children in the U.S. While aftermarket car seats can reduce the risk of death by up to 70%, they don’t protect children under the age of two.
What about for bodies larger than the 50th percentile male? Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of data or safety studies conducted on the disparities by stature or weight. The Crash Injury Research and Engineering Network (CIREN) has conducted some work and should have relevant data but their list of publications hasn’t been updated since 2016.
The National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA), a non-profit trade association, produces a Quality Assurance Program so drivers with disabilities know what alterations they need to make that will keep them safe. Still, there is a large gap in vehicle access for drivers and passengers with disabilities, let alone in-vehicle safety.
So, this will all be fixed with Autonomous Vehicles, right?
Probably not. Passenger AVs are expected to have new seating configurations now that the roles of passenger and driver will not be necessary. Some design concepts for the interiors mimic stylish living rooms or conference rooms. These all seem like a very distant future when every vehicle on the road is autonomous and they can mimic the smooth glide of a light rail.
How long will that transition take? Nobody really knows. And, in the meantime, there are still many safety concerns. At least one automaker is experimenting with an airbag that would deploy to protect occupants from knocking into each other, which could cause injuries or even fatalities. Autoliv has exhibited a “life cell” airbag to provide protection no matter how someone is seated. But will this cocoon fit all bodies? How will it account for wheelchair users?
Vehicle-interior safety design was an afterthought the first time cars were introduced onto roadways. And so far, it hasn’t been included in any AV policy or reports from the industry or policymakers. Autonomous vehicles are inevitable and are expected to dramatically reduce accidents. This is an important opportunity to do better than we have in the past and design safe vehicles for all passengers, instead of just the 50th percentile male.
Sam Wu is the Data Policy Product Manager at Stae, where she leads research on AV testing, including a collaboration with RIDOT on its first autonomous public shuttle. Reach out to collaborate: we+AV@stae.co