We Will Still Need Seat Belts, Even In Self-Driving Cars

Dr. Lance Eliot, AI Insider

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[Ed. Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column: https://forbes.com/sites/lanceeliot/]

Seat belts.

Some people love them and feel reassured to be wearing one while inside a moving car.

Others hate them and feel trapped, at times even trying to find clever ways to avoid wearing them.

Grandparents Opinions About Seat Belts

I remember my grandparents telling me when I was young that they normally did not wear a seat belt. They indicated that when Congress passed the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety law in the mid-1960’s making seat belts mandatory in cars, they nearly went to Washington DC to protest. Indeed, they defiantly refused to wear seat belts at all, and made a proud show of disdain for seat belts every time they got into a car.

They had experienced primarily lap belts for most of their driving life.

I vividly recall them buckling all of the lap belts that were in the car and telling any passengers to sit atop the buckled seat belt.

The 3-point belt standard got them further riled up.

In their later years, air bags were just coming to fruition, which was mainly during the 1970’s and the 1980’s.

The airbag was the kiss-of-death to the need for seat belts. They assumed that the air bag would save them in any kind of incident.

Seat Belts Aspects

One aspect that I never could fully grasp about my grandparents’ concerns was that they insisted the seat belt would hamper the driving of a car.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a situation that I thought my seat belt got in the way of my driving the car.

Another qualm they had was that the seat belt could end-up killing you.

Have you heard that one before?

You might be puzzled about killer seat belts.

Let me enlighten you.

My grandparents asserted that you might get into a car accident and not be able to escape from the car. The seat belt would keep you pinned into the wrecked car.

I trust that you know that the odds of seat belts “killing” you are exceedingly remote.

Seat Belts And The Law

In California, it is the law that you must wear your seat belt.

And it is not just the driver that must wear a seat belt.

The law here is that the driver and all passengers in a car that are over the age of 8 or are children sized 4 feet 9 inches tall or taller must all be wearing seat belts.

In some states, the police can stop you if you are not wearing a seat belt, allowing them to share with you the importance of wearing a seatbelt and you can get a ticket for not having worn it.

Here in California, any passenger under the age of 16 that is not wearing a seat belt will mean that the driver gets the blame (or, more properly stated, has the responsibility, which the driver should have duly exercised and made sure the teens were wearing seat belts, akin to being the captain of a ship).

For the driver of a car, the seat belt can aid them in being able to retain control of the driving task.

Whereas they might be tossed around wildly without seat belts, the intent is that you’ll stay pretty much in place and be able to therefore continue to access the steering wheel and the pedals.

Front seat passengers can also gain advantages by wearing their seat belts.

A front seat passenger that is not wearing a seat belt can inadvertently get tossed into the driver of the car, causing the driver to lose control of the car or perhaps leading to the driver hitting the gas or steering radically when they didn’t intend to do so. The front seat passenger could get launched through the front windshield in a severe impact of the car hitting another car or ramming into something, which would likely not occur if the person was wearing a seat belt.

The backseat seat belts are for many people less essential, since they assume that anyone in the backseat will somehow be magically okay in a car incident. Those people falsely think that whatever happens in the backseat won’t affect the front seat and the driving. Little do they seem to know that a person flying around in a backseat can readily push into the back of a front seat, causing havoc to the driver sitting in the front seat. It is even possible for the person in the backseat to go flying up into the front seat of the car, or possibly get launched through the front windshield.

Ridesharing Cars And Seat Belts

Some recent studies about the wearing of seat belts has indicated that people often do not wear the backseat seat belts when they get into a ridesharing car. These are people that would normally wear their seat belts in the backseat of a car of someone that they knew. But, when they get into a ridesharing car, they often do not put on the backseat seat belts.

The news media seemed puzzled by this matter.

I think it seems quite obvious.

When you get into a ridesharing car, you are likely going to take a very short trip, and you are assuming that the chances of a car incident occurring are low, due to the short distance and time involved in the travel. You are also likely used to getting into vehicles such as buses that often do not have seat belts.

There is also the matter of figuring out the seat belts in a car that you are not familiar with.

Some might also ascribe a level of proficiency to the ridesharing driver. These passengers might believe that the ridesharing driver is a professional driver and so less likely to get involved in an incident, perhaps more so than would someone that they know as a friend or colleague.

I don’t want to sound like some kind of seat belt crazed advocate.

I am not suggesting that seat belts are a cure all.

They are a reasoned form of safety that has trade-offs.

AI Autonomous Cars And Seat Belts

What does this have to do with AI self-driving driverless autonomous cars?

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI software for self-driving cars. One aspect to consider is the nature and use of safety restraints such as seat belts and air bags. I often get asked whether or not we’ll still have such constraints in a world of AI self-driving cars.

First, let’s consider cars that are semi-autonomous.

Those semi-autonomous cars will need a human licensed driver at the wheel and the human driver must be ready to take over the driving task when needed. In many respects, this is no different than being in a conventional car in the sense that the human driver should be snugly in their driver’s seat and be kept in place via a seat belt, along with having air bags at the ready.

There is a bit of a twist though.

One issue that I’ve repeatedly brought up about semi-autonomous cars is that the human driver is likely to become cognitively disjointed from the driving task.

As the automation gets better and better, there is a tendency for a human driver to become increasingly careless and aloof of the driving effort.

In addition to being mentally adrift, there is a high chance that the human driver will be physically adrift too.

You’ve perhaps seen videos of human drivers reading a book, texting on their smartphones, and otherwise physically having their limbs away from the controls of the car.

Semi-Autonomous Cars And Seat Belt Use

This raises the question of whether or not we’ll potentially see more human drivers that will seek to avoid their seat belts or misuse the seat belt by not remaining in place.

I would anticipate that we’ll see a lot of human drivers that allow themselves to get into such a predicament.

I’d like to suggest that we instead consider how to use automation and the AI to help on the matter.

There is already a move afoot to use cameras that are inward facing to watch the human driver and alert them when they are no longer looking ahead at the roadway. These cameras can also scan the position of the eyes of the human driver, thus, their head needs to be straight ahead, and their eyes need to be looking ahead too. There are new devices on steering wheels to detect whether the driver has their hands on the wheel and if they are away from it too long the steering wheel lights up or a sound or some alert warns them about this.

The seat belt and the physical position of the human driver can also be scanned via the inward facing cameras. This would allow the AI to further determine how far away from the driving controls the human driver is becoming, along with whether the human driver is putting themselves into greater danger by not being in the proper placement for the seat belt to work as intended.

Smart Seat Belts

There are numerous research efforts underway to create the next-generation of seat belts, which some are referring to as Smart Seat Belts (SSB’s).

These advanced versions of seat belts have embedded sensors.

Those sensors would become another form of data collection for the AI system and allow it to ascertain the placement related to the driver. In this manner, not only would there be the visual data from the inward facing camera, but in addition there would be data coming from the seat belt itself.

It is anticipated that the SSB’s would provide a kind of customization for the wearer of the seat belt.

The seat belt would contain elements that could allow it to stretch and extend, or tighten and become more fitting, depending upon the size and weight of the human driver. Hopefully, this would act as another form of encouragement for the human driver to make sure they are wearing their seat belt and doing so in the appropriate manner.

For semi-autonomous cars, I’ve emphasized herein that the human driver must remain involved and aware of the driving task, and that the use of the seat belt is crucial in that effort.

True Self-Driving Cars And Seat Belts

Let’s now turn our attention to true self-driving cars.

In a true self-driving car, there is no need to have a human driver present.

Here’s where things get really tricky.

It has been predicted that the interior of AI self-driving cars will be radically different than the interior of today’s conventional cars.

One of the main reasons to redo the interior is that there is no longer a need to have the driving controls, which normally takes up a chunk of space at the front of the interior. Likewise, there is no need to have a driver’s seat.

The car interior now becomes a freed-up space that can be used for whatever you want it to be used for.

Some automakers are possibly going to be put swivel seats that allow passengers to face each other, or not, as they might wish to swivel back-and-forth during a driving journey. There are automakers that are going to be putting recliners into the car, or perhaps even beds. The thinking is that people will start using their cars to take them on longer trips and will want to sleep in their car. Or, maybe during their morning commute to work they might want to take a brief nap..

I’ll bring us all back to earth and point out that whatever you do in this interior space, you still need to have safety restraints.

Sorry about that, I hope this didn’t burst anyone’s bubble.

I’ve seen some concept designs of car interiors that omit entirely any kind of seat belts. I know that a concept design is supposed to look sleek and sexy, but I have a bit of concern about not showing the seat belts. You might say it’s a small omission and not worthy of noting. I guess we’ll disagree on that point. I don’t want people having false expectations that they will now be suddenly rid of seat belts.

I have some people that say there will never be any car accidents once we have all AI self-driving cars.

This is some wild kind of dreamworld that these people have bought into.

The first aspect is that there will be an ongoing mix of both AI self-driving cars and human driven cars for quite a while, maybe forever, and thus there is not going to be this Utopian world of solely AI self-driving cars (as I had mentioned earlier herein). You had best face the facts. And, in that case, we are going to have car collisions and impacts with other cars, presumably mainly AI self-driving cars and human driven cars making adverse contact with each other.

Even if we somehow removed all human driven cars from the roadways, and we had only AI self-driving cars, explain to me what an AI self-driving car is going to do when a dog rushes out into the street from behind a large tree. The physics of the situation are going to be that the AI self-driving car will need to hit its brakes. For those of you that counter-argue that the AI should have detected the dog beforehand, I defy you to be able to offer any means by which all such “surprises” will be eliminated from the world of driving as know it. A dog hidden behind a tree is not something that can be so readily detected.

This brings up another point about being inside a car. You are not wearing seat belts only because of car accidents. Whenever the driver of a car has to hit the brakes, or maybe take a curve very fast, or perform other such maneuvers, the humans inside the car are going to be tossed back-and-forth. The seat belts are used for that safety purpose too. It’s not just when there is an actual car accident that the seat belts come to play.

How will safety belts function when you are in a swivel seat of your fancy new AI self-driving car?

Do we need a new kind of seat belt?

Will people be upset that their seat belts restrain them, which maybe right now they don’t notice as much, but when they are wanting to move around in those swivel seats it could become a more apparent matter.

I’d also guess that people will be tempted to take off their seat belts.

Where will the human be and what is their position?

Will the airbag deploy in a manner that befits the position of the human passenger?

With a conventional car, you are pretty much guaranteed where the humans will be seated. This makes it relatively easy to position the air bags.

In a true self-driving car, the humans will have additional flexibility in terms of where they will be seated, their angle, their pitch, and so on.

If the humans are reclining, we once again need to identify what kind of seat belt can aid them. The same is the case with full-on prone position for sleeping inside a moving car.


I remember when I was a child that my parents would sometimes turn around from the front seat of the car and loudly tell me and my siblings that we better stop messing around or we’d be in a lot of trouble. That usually worked, and we settled down. At least for a few minutes.

For AI self-driving cars, the use of seat belts will still be crucial and amount to pretty much the same as today’s conventional cars. There will likely though be human drivers and passengers that might become complacent when in a semi-autonomous car, and falsely believe they can either remove their seat belt or wiggle around it. The AI can likely detect this and act as a kind of seat belt cop.

When we get to the true self-driving cars, the good news is that there is no longer a human driver that needs to be properly seat belted in. The bad news is that the passengers are bound to want to move around and have freedom within the moving car. Wearing a seat belt won’t be the top of their list of things to do while in an AI self-driving car. Plus, with the variations in car interiors, the odds are that having conventional seat belts won’t cut the mustard and we’ll need other approaches to be invented or brought to the marketplace.

The toughest aspect about the true self-driving cars involves having unattended children in the self-driving car. In theory, if an adult is present, you can hold the adult responsible for making sure that everyone on the self-driving car is properly wearing their seat belt at all times. Without an adult, what are we to do? The AI can certainly detect the tomfoolery, but it is not readily going to be able to enforce the seat belt policy per se.

There are lots of catchy sayings that have evolved around wearing seat belts.

Click it or ticket.

Confucius says wear your seat belt.

No safety, know pain.

Seat belts save lives, buckle up every time.

We’ll need to come up with some new slogans for the advent of AI self-driving cars.

AI says wear your seat belt.

No seat belts, AI no go.

The AI says, don’t forget to fasten your seat belt.

Well, I’m sure that someone can come up with something catchier than those potential tags.

The real work is going to be solving the seat belt “problem” and leveraging the AI to aid in saving people by getting them to wear their seat belts.

That’s a worthy catchphrase.

For free podcast of this story, visit: http://ai-selfdriving-cars.libsyn.com/website

The podcasts are also available on Spotify, iTunes, iHeartRadio, etc.

More info about AI self-driving cars, see: www.ai-selfdriving-cars.guru

To follow Lance Eliot on Twitter: https://twitter.com/@LanceEliot

For his Forbes.com blog, see: https://forbes.com/sites/lanceeliot/

For his AI Trends blog, see: www.aitrends.com/ai-insider/

For his Medium blog, see: https://medium.com/@lance.eliot

For Dr. Eliot’s books, see: https://www.amazon.com/author/lanceeliot

Copyright © 2019 Dr. Lance B. Eliot

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Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a renowned global expert on AI, Stanford Fellow at Stanford University, was a professor at USC, headed an AI Lab, top exec at a major VC.

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