Safety testing for AVs is just beginning

There is much work to be done in creating accurate, reliable tests for occupant crashworthiness tailored to new AV designs and seating configurations.

NHTSA’s plan to eventually update its New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) with new crash-test protocols is good news for both consumers and the mobility safety-systems industry. A revised NCAP will likely feature enhanced occupant safety testing as well as testing of active-safety features such as adaptive cruise control and automatic braking.

It’s also a positive step for autonomous vehicle (AV) developers. Studies show U.S. consumers are still resistant to the idea of self-driving cars, and such testing will provide the public with assurances that these vehicles are safe. This should serve to “warm up” consumers to the idea of a world with AVs, boosting demand and paving the way for an increasingly safer mobility future.

While the inclusion of testing procedures for active safety features would set an important precedent, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, AVs have proven that they are not immune to crashes. There is much work to be done, particularly when it comes to creating accurate, reliable tests for occupant crashworthiness tailored to new AV designs and seating configurations. And even though such designs may still be a few years away from mainstream consumer adoption, it would be a mistake to wait.

Occupant-position challenges
Reclining seats are one of the first significant design changes that will demand a new set of occupant crashworthiness tests. We will be more apt to recline the seat in an AV because we won’t have to pay attention to the road; we may be watching a movie or even taking a nap. Even the slightest changes in backrest angle can have a significant impact on occupant susceptibility to injury in the event of a crash.

Let’s say an occupant is sitting in a car seat that has its backrest position set at 23 degrees. Reclining the seat to 33 or 43 degrees is not an extreme difference, yet the rate and severity of injury could increase significantly under each of these circumstances. While current anthropomorphic test dummies (ATDs) gather more sensor data than ever before, they are not designed for these new seating conditions.

New seating positions present another challenge. We’ve all seen the new seating layouts for AVs presented in concept cars. Passengers can sit facing one another, as in a railcar, because no one will need to drive or focus attention on the road. Rotatable seats are another new feature, allowing passengers to change their view and look at the surrounding scenery at any angle they prefer.

While seeing these new layouts may spark the imagination and excitement for future automotive travel, they too will require major crash-test protocol changes. Roundtable and quad seating positions mean that what was once a frontal crash is now essentially a side or rear crash. Entirely new crash testing procedures need to be developed to address these likely impact scenarios.

Of course, there are additional questions to ponder, such as the development of new seatbelts, airbags and seats. New seating positions will send a ripple effect of needed changes throughout the safety systems community. Suppliers will need to reconfigure their products and collaborate with vehicle OEMs to modify restraints and conduct tests to ensure vehicle crashworthiness.

Next steps are vital
The mobility industry needs to bring the best and the brightest together to develop and refine new tests that would assess occupant crashworthiness of AVs in a comprehensive manner. While it’s true that there are some vital pieces of equipment that we may not yet have at our disposal – such as adaptable ATDs that are currently in the design phase – we should resist temptation to delay the introduction of new NCAP testing protocols. There is much we can do immediately in this area. Virtual testing, for example, can be used now to provide a reliable simulation of occupant impact during a crash under various conditions.

AV safety also represents a prime opportunity for private industry and government to work together, bringing together their collective expertise in various aspects of testing. For example, there is value in combining the government’s experience in crash-testing cadavers with private industry’s strength in developing and executing physical and simulated tests.

When it comes to building and nurturing a thriving AV market, we can’t rest on the fact that the U.S. leads the way in AV innovation. Addressing occupant crashworthiness is just as important to promoting a thriving AV market as are other widely publicized priorities, including ensuring infrastructure and road readiness, and establishing consistent nationwide policies governing AVs.

It would be a significant mistake to wait for further development of AV technologies before tackling the issue of testing for occupant crashworthiness. While a world where driverless cars rule the road is still many years off, automotive OEMs are continuing to set ambitious goals for the roll-out of these vehicles on to our roads.

If we ignore the need for specialized tests, we risk finding ourselves in a never-ending game of catch-up that will put lives at risk and threaten our opportunity for global AV market leadership.

Christopher O’Connor is CEO and President of Humanetics Innovative Solutions, the leading developer and manufacturer of anthropomorphic test dummies (ATDs) based in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

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