Airbags added to autonomous vehicle

Questionable new safety feature in autonomous vehicles

Mattresses were used a lot in my household when I was a kid.

They were the ultimate soft-fall or protection from hard walls or generally used anywhere there seemed to be danger lurking as we played indoor games.

I am not sure how effective a mattress was in protecting our bodies from hard surfaces but it allowed us to undertake all sorts of activities with some additional degree of perceived safety.

I am not sure if the engineers at Nuro had a similar experience as children but when I saw an image of their latest autonomous robot, my first thought was that someone had strapped a mattress to the front of the car.

Nuro has been operating fully autonomous vehicles on the roads of Houston for a couple of years.

The car is half the width of a normal car but a similar height and length.

It navigates the roads using self-driving sensors including cameras, radars, and a spinning 'lidar' unit on its roof.

Nuro has been operating fully autonomous vehicles on the roads of Houston for a couple of years.

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute estimated autonomous vehicles would reduce injuries by 61.8 per cent.

The majority of this reduction (72.1 per cent) was from lack of occupants in the vehicle.

Two ex-Google engineers started Nuro with the idea of removing people from the inside of vehicles to make deliveries safer and cheaper.

And companies have responded. Already deliveries are being performed for Domino's; Walmart; Chipotle and FedEx.

The latest version of their vehicle, the R3, has twice the cargo space of their R2 version and features modular goods inserts with new temperature-controlled compartments to keep the food warm or cold, depending on the need.

The new feature I am most intrigued by, though, is the addition of an airbag on the R3.

An addition of airbags seems a strange item to be discussing in a future focused tech column. After all, airbags have been compulsory in Australian cars since 1998. That is on the inside of the car.

The R3 is designed with no space for a driver or passenger.

No major incidents have occurred yet but engineers like to develop. So they came up with the idea of improving safety of the R3 with an airbag on the outside of the vehicle.

I am interested in the trigger here.

A normal vehicle with internal airbags has sensors mounted inside the front of the car that detect when the vehicle decelerates with a force equal to hitting a solid object at a speed of more than 25km/h. This is typically around 20 Gs.

I am not sure how the airbag trigger would work in the R3. It can't rely on a sensor inside the vehicle because once that is triggered then the pedestrian is already sprawled across the front of the vehicle.

And if the R3 just relies on sensing a pedestrian before it triggers the airbag, then maybe it would be better to just stop before it hits the pedestrian?

It may well be somewhat of a marketing ploy. Make the scary robot look friendly by hiding it behind a soft device at the front.

Images of my kids watching a scary movie while peeping out from behind a cushion come to mind.

Whatever the motivation, there is no doubt that autonomous vehicles are coming.

Today, they will be delivering our pizza across town. Tomorrow they will de delivering freight across the country, and before we know it they will be taking people wherever they want to go.

Tell me how comfortable you are with autonomous vehicles.

The data says they are safer, but how do you feel? E-mail your feelings to

This story Questionable new safety feature in autonomous vehicles first appeared on The Canberra Times.