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Smart Roads Could Protect Us From Self-Driving Car Crashes

The cars will protect the passengers. But who’s looking out for the walkers, cyclists, and other people nearby?

What does a self-driving car do when it’s speeding down the road and a pedestrian unexpectedly jumps out in front? Does it veer off the road to avoid the pedestrian and potentially endanger its passenger–or hit the pedestrian? These cars could be the ones deciding who lives and who dies. Could designers find a way to solve this problem?

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For our new series Provocation, Co.Design posed that question to some of our favorite design firms. So far, we’ve heard about flying inflatable drones that act like airbags for pedestrians, a steering wheel that gives passengers control over their car’s morality, and an entire connected street grid.

The San Francisco-based firm Astro Studios responded to our prompt by creating a smart infrastructure system with warning lights, street illumination, and a fully reactive road that–in the worst-case scenario–will rise up and become a buffer between car and person. The system, created by Astro creative directors Norio Fujikawa and Alejandro Chavetta, is based on the duo’s conviction that self-driving cars will be fully dedicated to protecting their passengers. That means it’s up to the city’s infrastructure to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe.

“We need to leverage that intelligence and use it to protect the people around, not the people inside,” Chavetta says. “The people inside are protected.”

[Image: courtesy Astro Studios]

Warning Lights For Cyclists

In an autonomous world, cars won’t need signals to interact with each other. Instead, most signals will be outward-facing, primarily for people’s benefit. “Cars become more predictable with each other because they’re smart and connected,” Fujikawa says. “But that doesn’t mean the people are smart and connected.”

The studio proposes a laser projection from the car that acts as a warning sign for cyclists that might be in its blind spot. The light would let cyclists and walkers know of the car’s intended path. Another idea? A circular indicator light on the exterior of vehicles to replace the age-old practice between human drivers and pedestrians or cyclists of making eye contact to establish that they’ve seen each other. Astro’s circular indicator would let cyclists or walkers know they know the car has seen them.

[Image: courtesy Astro Studios]

Illuminated Smart Streets

Part of the problem with self-driving cars is that other cars might know where they’re going, but humans on the side of the road don’t. Astro imagines an illuminated path that comes from the road itself (or is projected by the car). That way, both cyclists and pedestrians who are paying attention will have a sense of where the car is going so they can stay out of the way.

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That goes the other way, too. If a person starts to cross the street, the road lights up, turning their path into an illuminated crosswalk that the cars are programmed not to cross. “If a car is coming and you don’t have enough time to make it through the intersection, the crosswalk would be lit red,” Chavetta says.

The idea was inspired by crosswalks that are painted like art pieces–partially because they’re beautiful, but also because they’re more visible to drivers. These illuminated crosswalks of the future would be lit for people’s benefit, but the crux is that cars wouldn’t be able to cross them.

[Image: courtesy Astro Studios]

A Fully Reactive Road

If these two futuristic signage systems fail, Astro’s designers have a few fail-safes in mind.

One relies on the road being fully magnetized. If the car detects there’s a pedestrian that it might hit, the magnetized road could effectively hold the car in place. Astro also imagines a fully reactive road that uses smart materials to gradually arrest the movement of the car while protecting the pedestrian–by far the most technically far-fetched of the studio’s ideas. However, the concept of fully utilizing the infrastructure surrounding the car and not relying on carmakers themselves is feasible. There are already self-heating roads designed to melt snow on their own, and electric-charging roads the give your electric car a boost when you drive over them. Companies like 3M are working on smart roads and signs that are more visible to self-driving cars.

The bigger question is who would pay for a system like this. That’s one Astro’s designers haven’t figured out, but the likeliest scenario is that the private sector or universities would develop the technology and the government would deploy and pay for it.

The key to keeping people safe in a self-driving era? “The car is alive,” Fujikawa says, “but so is the street.”

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This story is part of Co.Design’s new conceptual design series, Provocation. Previously I’ve written about Artefact’s connected street gridCheck out the rest of the series as it’s published here

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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