WASHINGTON — Self-driving vehicles may not cause accidents, but they will surely 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."