Expert warns changing driver positions in autonomous vehicles could lead to severe injuries

Published: October 15, 2018

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As vehicles become more autonomous, we may have to accept more severe collisions as the technology grows. A crash reconstructionist told Canadian Underwriter recently that driver orientation will change and the path between driver control and full autonomy may be a dangerous one.

Drivers currently occupy a vehicle by sitting face forward in the driver’s seat. Seatbelts and headrests keep drivers in position, mostly looking straight ahead. As vehicles with self-driving technology become smarter and take more control, the orientation of the driver will change. Over the years, drivers will slowly become passengers.

The levels of autonomy in vehicles are as follows:

  • SAE Level 0 – human does everything, like current cars
  • SAE Level 1 – some in-car systems can aid the human in the operation of the vehicle
  • Level 2 – the autonomous tech can complete some driving tasks, but human monitoring is needed.
  • SAE Level 3 – the system conducts some driving and monitors some of the environment, but human must be ready as backup
  • Level 4 – the system can conduct driving tasks without any input from humans. However, the system only works under some conditions. This is where the current market is.
  • SAE Level 5 is when the car can perform all tasks without the need for a human driver.

Changing Position

Indeed, driverless cars of the future will be just that. They will lack steering wheels and pedals. Drivers will have zero input and will not need to be seated in frontal position. Instead, they will be able to turn and even relax in their cars.

For example, in a fully automated vehicle, a driver may turned to the side facing the middle of the cabin and engaged in a conversation. This changed orientation could have grim consequences in the event of a collisions.

In such a scenario “you can be catastrophically injured just because you are in a different orientation from the way a vehicle is designed,” said Sami Shaker, physicist and client relations manager with Kodsi Forensic Engineering.

“I think each bodily injury claim is going to increase because people are not going to be seated in a normal position.”

Black Box

Shaker is scheduled to discuss self-driving vehicles and how they will impact auto insurance during a BIP Talk at the Insurance Brokers Association of Ontario (IBAO) Convention this week (Oct. 17). The event will be titled The Driverless Frontier. Shaker predicts data collection devices will become more common through the evolution of autonomous vehicles.

Drivers can already adopt telematics devices. However, Shaker believes driverless vehicles will contain “black boxes”.

“It’s almost like the black box could potentially start becoming the brain behind the driverless vehicle,” Shaker said. “It’s being fed all the data from these various sensors and could be an integral part of the driverless vehicle.”