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Old 3rd October 2018, 16:58   #1
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Default Waymo's Bed of Airbags and Patent insights

I began following Patents to understand the technological advancements in the field of automobiles. Patent publications are a great strategic tool and knowledge powerhouse. It offers much more scientific details (a bit cryptical!) than any other source that is publicly available.

Here is a brief summary of one such interesting patent and my analysis of its context along with the strategy of the others in this field.

Waymo's Patent

Almost a year ago, Waymo was granted patent rights to an interesting concept in the domain of "Pedestrian Safety". Waymo's autonomous software and its ambition in creating a holistic operating environment for future mobility is not a secret. The fact that they are making their own hardware (sensors, processors etc) to suit their software shows their engineering bandwidth and commitment to the industry. But how much is Waymo interested in developing other components of a vehicle? Especially, those that are not the core of the Autonomous system that Waymo is fine-tuning these days. One can only speculate.

Although it is hard/impossible to judge the strategy from analysing a company's patents, one can at least speculate out of curiosity. That is the joy for the enthusiast but not for the analyst!!

Especially for a company like Google, they could just file patent out of an individual's interest and not necessarily related to the company's ambitions. In fact, Waymo does have a track record of filing oddball patents like their adhesive based pedestrian safety system in 2013. But to know that the company has been regularly filing new patents related to vehicle crash safety definitely makes one curious about the internet behemoth's intentions in this field.

I chose one such patent, not just because of the main claim but also due to the subtle revelation of allied engineering details that Waymo has in place for the autonomous vehicle of the future.

Patent Gist

This patent deals with the concept of “ external interlocking airbags” that are designed to mitigate the impact on a pedestrian when colliding with an autonomous car. The autonomous system primarily consists of a perception system (eyes, ears and brain of the car) and enablers (steering, throttle and brake) to implement the decisions. The airbags in this Patent are developed for the times when the perception system senses an imminent collision that cannot be avoided anymore, thanks to the unpredictable road user.

The system consists of a cluster of airbags placed next to each other, which on inflation form a continuous net of cushion for the colliding pedestrian. This set of airbags will protect the pedestrian from hitting against the hard external surfaces of a vehicle. Based on the perception system's prediction of the trajectory, a particular airbag (primary) is first deployed followed by consecutive airbags (secondary) to support the pedestrian. The significant point of the claim is that the shape of the primary and secondary airbags complement each other, forming a continuous layer to prevent the pedestrian from missing/sliding off the primary airbag or impacting between the gaps between the airbags.

Waymo's Bed of Airbags and Patent insights-ge.jpg

An example design from the document, 310, 312 and 314 are the interlocking airbags.

Waymo's Bed of Airbags and Patent insights-view2.jpg

Design of Pedestrian Airbags

Most other carmakers who pursue the “external airbag” way for pedestrian safety deploy it only after detecting a crash. That way, the pedestrian is protected only during the secondary impact when the head hits the windshield region and not against the primary impact when the edge of the vehicle hits the lower part of the body.

But here with Waymo’s perception system, the car can deploy the airbag even before the impact, thanks to the perception system that will predict the impact. It is claimed that this is possible even when the driver is in control. The perception system will be capable of deploying the right airbag among an array of airbags placed sequentially. It is claimed that the system can predict the exact trajectory of an object (pedestrian, cyclist and even animals!) since the system is able to judge not only the size but also the mass of the object, thanks to the Neural-networks and databases that identify and predict the 'Centre of Gravity' of an object.

This way, the airbags can be triggered just before a collision and the airbags are completely inflated at the exact moment of the contact. This means that the pedestrian is protected even during the first point of impact.

The placement of multiple airbags becomes significant since it is not always possible to have the pedestrian impact at the same point, unlike the passenger who is tethered by the seat belt. The degrees of freedom for a random pedestrian is high and thus requiring this contraption of airbags with interlocking shapes. With this solution, Waymo can not only protect pedestrians but also other entities like Cyclists, perambulators, wheelchair users and even animals to some extent.

Image from the Patent document showing the deployment of the airbags during a collision with a cyclist.

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Last edited by vivee90 : 4th October 2018 at 10:08. Reason: Formatting to make it read better
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Old 3rd October 2018, 17:08   #2
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Default Re: Waymo's Bed of Airbags and Patent insights

Other interesting bits

1. Waymo plans to have a light bar(207 in the image) on the side of the vehicle for communication. Its intention is not clear yet but could be a means for the autonomous pod to communicate with passengers who are entering/exiting or for pedestrians around the car.

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Other automakers too have their own ways of adding an HMI (Human - Machine Interface) for external communication, like the Projector of the Mercedes Benz F 015 concept, Nissan Leaf concept with LED Matrix board or Ford's light bar in the windshield. Related Article:

2. Waymo plans to integrate the sensors of the perception system inside the existing feature of the car, like having sensors inside the tail lights or the side view mirror housing. This will lead to an aesthetically refined look for a vehicle. The component(212) that typically houses the LIDAR at the top of the vehicle is also said to be part of the signalling system. That would make for a signalling device much like an Ambulance or a Police vehicle.

3. Another patent from Waymo related to vehicle crash safety deals with altering the rigidity of a vehicle's surface to soften the impact. This is a unique solution for a conventional looking car. I suppose, once the engine is free of all the metal (In electric car) that space can be used for such contraptions wherein special tension members can be designed that will act as an "Adaptive Crumple Zone" in order to better absorb the crash energy.

External Airbags - Other Types

Below are some examples of External Airbags' application in conventional wisdom. Airbags are used not just for pedestrian safety but also as an inflatable crumple zone in the sides and front.

ZF TRW's pre-crash external airbags act as a cushion to reduce the impact during a side collision. It is not part of the pedestrian safety however but forms a part of the passenger impact mitigation system.

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General Motors's Fender mounted Airbag for pedestrian safety that covers a certain part of the frontal surface of a vehicle. A discrete door is designed in the corner of the A-pillar to facilitate the airbag deployment. Link :

Hyundai's decade-old patent about an airbag inside the bumper that will act as a cushion and mitigate the impact for the passenger. This system is claimed to be deployed before a crash. The interesting part of this is the date, which is in 2010 when "Perception systems" were still in Hollywood and not in Silicon Valley.

Subaru's more conventional external airbag for the pedestrian. The airbag is basically a soft net bordering all four sides of the windshield. It is designed in such a way as to retain the pedestrian and mitigate the impact from all possible directions.

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Mercedes Benz's A-pillar mounted airbags that protect impacts on the A-pillar. This is a passive system that is activated after detecting a collision.

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Jaguar Land Rover's 3 part Adult Pedestrian Airbag that is active during impacts in the speed range of 20 to 50 km/h. JLR has ensured minimum obstruction of the driver's view during the deployment of the airbag. Link:

TNO's research on cyclist safety and the integration of a specific airbag for a cyclist. Volvo also has a similar feature but also including pedestrians.

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My Conclusion

Having a perception system that can observe, decide and control the actuation systems of a vehicle brings in a lot of new innovations that are not necessarily software-centric. This patent from Waymo highlights the fact, that there are a lot of improvements and innovations to be realised on the mechanical design front with the backing of electronics and software. The old dough is still required but with a new dressing! And that is why it is the most exciting time for the industry!

Looking forward to your comments.

Last edited by vivee90 : 4th October 2018 at 11:10.
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Old 5th October 2018, 07:46   #3
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Default Re: Waymo's Bed of Airbags and Patent insights

Thread moved from the Assembly Line to the Safety Section. Thanks for sharing!
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Old 5th October 2018, 10:48   #4
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Default Re: Waymo's Bed of Airbags and Patent insights

Excellent thread, thanks for starting. Looking at those nice balloons/pillows all over the car, I wonder why don't we just make the whole interior covered with a permanent layer of soft cushion. Yes, it might add dead volume but may make sense to extra cautious customers.

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Old 5th October 2018, 16:46   #5
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Default Re: Waymo's Bed of Airbags and Patent insights

I wonder if in the indian context, features like this will further embolden people to be more careless? In many cities, we see irresponsible driving by two wheelers (squids) as the risks (other than occupant safety) are piled up on the larger vehicle in the case of any accident.

Last edited by shreevishnu : 5th October 2018 at 17:10.
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Old 5th October 2018, 17:13   #6
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Default Re: Waymo's Bed of Airbags and Patent insights

Originally Posted by Thermodynamics View Post
Excellent thread, thanks for starting. I wonder why don't we just make the whole interior covered with a permanent layer of soft cushion.
Thank you. Your suggestion does take things overboard!
On a serious note, the other patent that Google has deals with altering the rigidity of a vehicle surface. That means that it instantly becomes a soft layer of cushion.

Originally Posted by shreevishnu View Post
I wonder if in the indian context, features like this will further embolden people to be more careless?
I don't think so. Reckless drivers will exist no matter what tech or rules you bring. On a positive side, this tech will save the poor careless guy who happened to be at the colliding point and wants to live.
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Old 5th October 2018, 20:06   #7
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Default Re: Waymo's Bed of Airbags and Patent insights

Talking about ideas moving from Hollywood to Silicon valley, the first time I saw the below scene in the movie, it just seemed like a no-brainer. I hope this becomes a reality at some point.

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Old 5th February 2019, 18:41   #8
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Default Re: Waymo's Bed of Airbags and Patent insights

Hello folks,

For those interested in Patenting and the process, I wrote an article about my experience in going through a self-learning episode to Patent one of my ideas in India. Here is the link

Do let me know what you think.
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