A Google patent outlines several different ways in which one of its autonomous cars could be made to "crumple" to minimise impact in the event of a collision. The idea is that moving panels of bodywork would limit the severity of injuries should a person be hit.
In its patent, the firm said the system might prove useful when an "impact with an object cannot be avoided by way of braking, steering, and/or accelerating the vehicle".
The BBC reports that several different systems are mentioned. One would see bumper sections of wings fixed using pins that could be broken by actuators on the car's chassis. The actuators would be triggered immediately prior to impact, breaking the pins and making the panel pull back.
Another method would see panels fixed to hinges or grooves, allowing them to be pulled back as an object was struck.
"Automated cars have the potential to 'see' more and react faster than human drivers but they'll never completely eliminate collisions," said a spokeswoman for the AA. "It's important that companies developing the vehicles of the future still consider what happens and how injuries can be mitigated when they do occur."
Google has previously patented a sort of human flypaper material for car bonnets. The idea is that the adhesive layer would grip and hold pedestrians – and presumably cyclists – in the event that they were hit. Many crash injuries are not caused by the initial collision, but when the pedestrian is thrown from the car onto the ground.
Speaking at the time, a Google spokeswoman said the existence of a patent doesn't necessarily mean that a new product is on the way. "We hold patents on a variety of ideas. Some of those ideas later mature into real products and services, some don't."