Self-driving technology is progressing at a rapid rate while not skirting the question of safety. Waymo, owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is one of the companies at the forefront of the technology. It was granted a patent last week for cars that will soften on hitting pedestrians so that minimum damage is caused in case of an accident.

“Collisions involving at least one vehicle occur frequently and often cause serious harm. The force of the vehicle's impact is a primary factor in the amount of damage that is caused by the vehicle. Accordingly, it is desirable to design a vehicle that can reduce the force of impact experienced during a collision,” the patent states.

How the system will work is that the cars will have sensors, which combined with object detection using technology such as LIDAR (light detection and ranging) will help to ensure safety in case of an accident. 

The safety feature will loosen the rigidity of body panels, bumpers and the hood using underlying rods, cables or springs. The point of impact on the car will loosen itself structurally to minimize impact, using cables.

The course of collision can be pre-determined by sensors and portions of the car will move into position to minimize the impact of the collision. The system will also determine what kind of object the car is about to collide with.

The state of the technology and its implementation is not yet known, only the patent has been granted. One thing is certain – if the feature is implemented, it will massively differentiate self-driven cars from traditional cars. Since self-driven cars are dependent on automation and take human conduct and its inconsistencies out of the equation, they are already expected to be safer than human driven cars.

According to a study titled, "Automated vehicle crash rate comparison using naturalistic data” by researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, in the current scenario using the available technology, while humans were involved in 4.2 crashes per million miles, self-driven cars were involved in 3.2 crashes per million miles. Furthermore, the severity of accidents involving human-driven cars was higher than self-driven cars. In simple terms, the increasingly capable safety features of self-driven cars and even adaptable features such as the one being explained by the patent will help improve safety features of self-driven cars further.

More importantly, both the software and the hardware of self-driven cars are being worked upon and improved at a high rate with many companies like Tesla and Waymo trying to get an edge over the market.

No driving system can be assumed to be a 100 percent safe since self-driven cars have been involved in crashes. The important aspect of self-driving is that the technology can be improved upon and can gain from experience, from every accident to create safer cars. The same cannot be said about human driving though, since there are too many elements involved with every individual driver.

The safety of self-driven cars depends on the assessment of these metrics quickly and a system that reacts fast to implement safeguards and procedures in a real-time driving environment.

Self-driving is already at a higher level than human driving, but this is expected to improve even more in coming years, especially with companies such as Waymo coming up with innovative solutions to maximize human safety.