Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Taking Action for Child Safety in Autonomous Vehicles

October 17, 2018

Dr. Tremoulet (top row, third from left) with other members of the SafeKids Worldwide Blue Ribbon Panel on Children in Autonomous Vehicles.

Self-driving vehicles, also known as autonomous vehicles (AVs), are being tested and will be on our roads sooner than many people realize. These vehicles raise a host of safety questions about child passengers.

With this in mind, Safe Kids Worldwide convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Children in Autonomous Vehicles (pictured right), which met for the first time on April 20, 2018 in San Antonio, Texas. I was invited, along with several other nationally recognized child safety advocates and transportation experts, to brainstorm, collaborate and ultimately develop the first-ever set of recommendations to keep child passengers safe in AVs. These recommendations, which were released today in the Children in Autonomous Vehicles Blue Ribbon Panel Report, will help automobile manufacturers learn how to predict and prevent the unintended consequences automated vehicles pose for children 12 years and younger.

As a member of this panel, I contributed to recommendations that urge automobile manufacturers to take action in the following three areas:

  1. Inclusive Design. AV manufacturers should seek input and feedback from child passenger safety experts to ensure the vehicles can accommodate the needs of children at all ages and stages. It’s not enough, however, to only look at in-vehicle activities. They need to consider the unexpected: What happens if the AV is hit by something from the outside? What happens if a curious child decides to explore the vehicle and starts pushing buttons? Can certain functions be locked or turned off to prevent child passengers from accessing them? Because AV development is still in its infancy, now’s the time to consult the child passenger safety community on AV development and innovation.
  2. Usability testing. AV manufacturers currently conduct usability tests with adults in pilot programs across the United States. These tests may sometimes include children, but AV manufacturers should develop test scenarios that include families transporting multiple children of varying ages and needs. Adjustable seating configurations, external communication capabilities, and other safety features should also also be tested with children.
  3. Appropriate supervision. Certainly, some issues are outside of AV manufacturers’ control when child passengers ride in AVs. However, they should take the proactive and cooperative step of funding research into best practices and policy recommendations concerning the appropriate level of supervision for children of different ages in AVs.

Appropriate Age Recommendations Needed

Besides these recommendations, there’s also a need to develop best practices around unaccompanied children riding in an AV. Currently some suburban children are being transported by ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber. Meanwhile, Uber is testing self-driving vehicles in several US cities. Taken together, these developments indicate that some parents are likely to want to use self-driving vehicles to transport unaccompanied children, so it is important to figure out how to keep those children safe;  There are currently far more questions than answers:

  • What happens if no one is there to meet the child at the AV destination?
  • What if the AV breaks down or is re-routed to an unknown location?
  • What if the child is unable to communicate a problem with the AV?
  • What if the child attempts to leave the vehicle before arriving at the programmed location?

AV manufacturer collaboration is key to determining how to best ensure children’s safety. Efforts could include laws prohibiting children under a certain age from riding in an AV without an adult and training programs for AV owners who intend to use their AV to transport children unaccompanied.

Our report is a first step in identifying the most critical concerns about AVs and children’s safety. As AVs evolve, the Blue Ribbon Panel will continue to promote discussion and raise the public’s awareness about all facets of this issue.

Download and share the report.

Read about CIRP’s Crash Avoidance and Autonomous Vehicles Research.

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