DETROIT – Interior concept designs for tomorrow’s self-driving vehicles include seats that fully recline and rotate so occupants can face each other like sitting around a campfire. It’s a far cry from the forward-facing seat configuration of today.

But how will the auto industry protect future autonomous-vehicle occupants who instead of driving are, say, napping or otherwise relaxing in various positions. Will his company need to develop the “yoga airbag”? asks Scott Dershem, automotive safety supplier Autoliv’s vice president-engineering development.

At the 2018 WardsAuto Interiors Conference, he and others talk about interior crash-safety systems for those impending autonomous vehicles. Their panel discussion ranges from prototypical “life-cell airbags” that essentially envelop occupants to criss-cross inflatable safety belts.          

“Bottom line: It’s complicated,” Dershem says. “There are a lot of things we don’t know, a lot of things we’re working on. Historical safety is based on real data, known problems. It’s not that simple with autonomous driving, because we don’t even know what the accidents will be. We’re trying to find solutions for all the potential problems.”

Fully autonomous vehicles that drive themselves and are loaded with an array of accident-avoidance systems presumably won’t collide with each other in the first place.

Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t, but it will be decades before roadways are filled only with autonomous vehicles, says Douglas Campbell, president of the Automotive Safety Council, a trade association representing auto safety-equipment suppliers.

If fully autonomous vehicles hit the road today, it would take until 2050 before they had it all to themselves, he says. “For years, we will have a mix of autonomous and non-autonomous cars on the road.”

And the drivers of the latter can commit human errors that may cause collisions with vehicles that aren’t in the hands of humans, Campbell says.

“Can you imagine people sitting face-to-face in an autonomous vehicle, and there’s an accident and the other person’s laptop computer flies in your face?” he says.

Then there is the possibility of people suffering from whiplash in ways like never before if they are positioned differently throughout the vehicle. “No longer would whiplash be one-directional,” Campbell says. “It could occur in multiple directions.”

In the works are safety systems that could prevent or mitigate such injuries.

 “Many different (occupant) postures are possible with autonomous vehicles” and future safety features must account for that, says fellow panelist Patrick Nebout, global innovation director- Faurecia Automotive Seating.

Accordingly, Dershem talks of developing active pelvis restraints as well as taller and longer side airbags to protect the likes of nappers.

For testing purposes, today’s crash dummies aren’t much help because they were developed singularly for today’s upright seating, Nebout says. He describes the need for new types of crash dummies that simulate assorted passenger positions, including lying down. 

Dershem even speaks of the need of using cadavers for testing.   

There’s always the possibility the accident-prevention systems in self-driving cars “will work better than we thought,” he says. “Maybe there will be fewer accidents. We don’t know what we don’t know. We’re going to learn a lot.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com