Jul 10, 2019

Axios Navigate

Joann Muller

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Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,365, ~5 minute read.

🚨 Today marks the launch of Axios Cities, a new weekly newsletter penned by my colleague Kim Hart.

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1 big thing: The gender gap in car safety

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Cars are safer than they've ever been thanks to new life-saving features, yet women face a much higher risk than men of being seriously injured or killed in a crash, a new study finds.

The big picture: Most vehicle safety tests are conducted using male crash test dummies. But designing safety systems to protect the "average male" leaves everyone else more vulnerable. In the race to develop self-driving cars, some safety advocates worry the danger women face in today's vehicles could be pushed aside to focus on AV safety.

The study: Researchers at the University of Virginia wanted to see how the introduction of safety technologies like multi-stage airbags over the past decade affected injury rates.

  • They examined the injuries sustained by 31,254 belted occupants in 22,854 head-on crashes between 1998 and 2015, and separated the findings into 2 groups: cars built before 2009 and cars built in 2009 or later, to see what had changed.
  • They controlled for various factors such as crash severity, occupant age, height, body mass index and the age of the vehicle.

What they found:

  • The good news: The likelihood of sustaining a serious to fatal injury in newer cars was 55% lower compared to older vehicles.
  • But injuries to women stuck out: Females were 73% more likely than males to sustain a serious to fatal injury in a collision — even after controlling for the fact that women tend to be smaller and sit closer to the steering wheel.
  • Women are especially vulnerable to leg, spine and abdominal injuries, with the odds at least twice those for men.

The reasons aren't entirely clear, because there's a lack of female-specific crash safety data, says Jason Forman, principal scientist at UVA's Center for Applied Biomechanics.

  • The standard crash test dummy is a 50th-percentile male that represents the average U.S. soldier in the 1960s.
  • A female dummy added in the early 2000s represents a 5th-percentile woman — under 5 feet tall and 108 pounds — and thus doesn't consider the other 95% of women.
  • It's essentially just a smaller version of a male dummy and doesn't account for what makes women unique: their different muscle strength, fat distribution, bone density — even their monthly hormones.
  • One theory is that a woman's menstrual cycle could affect stiffness in her ligaments and joints, meaning there could be times when she is more susceptible to injury.

What to watch: NHTSA says new, more lifelike dummies are in development, but at several million dollars apiece, change comes slowly, notes Forman, adding that dummies are only as good as the data on which they are based.

"We don't have enough information on the biomechanics of female occupants, or an understanding of the specific factors that create a higher risk for females."
— Forman
  • Virtual crash test dummies, as well as cheaper 3D-printed models, could make it easier to conduct safety tests involving female occupants — but only if the industry isn't distracted by safety challenges in future vehicles.
"This has been such a pervasive issue. We've known about it so long, and yet we tend to lose sight of it because of things that are the hot topic of the day."
2. Volvo takes the lead on female safety

A digital representation of a virtual female crash test dummy. Photo: Volvo Cars

Volvo Cars is taking the gender safety gap seriously. In March, the Swedish carmaker announced it will share 40 years of safety research with other automakers as part of its E.V.A. Initiative, or Equal Vehicles for All.

Why it matters: Cars should protect everyone — not just the average male, says Volvo, which has been redesigning some of its cars' safety systems to better protect women based on its own evidence that women are at higher risk for injury than men.

The background: Volvo has been collecting and analyzing real-world crash data since 1970.

  • The information gathered from more than 40,000 cars and 70,000 passengers led to many of the safety innovations Volvo has introduced since then.

Details: Because women's anatomy puts them at higher risk of whiplash than men, Volvo designed a new seat to protect both the head and spine. The company says it no longer sees a difference in whiplash risk between men and women.

  • Volvo also made its side curtain airbags cover the entire window to protect smaller women who sit lower and closer to the steering wheel.
  • The company also developed the world's first virtual pregnant crash test dummy to study how a woman and her fetus are affected in a crash.
"What it comes down to is not designing for a test, but designing for the real world."
— Volvo Cars spokesman Jim Nichols
3. Cities help AVs decipher local rules of the road

Photo: Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Some forward-looking cities are starting to digitize their traffic rules to help self-driving cars navigate local roadways.

Why it matters: Automated test vehicles are getting better at operating in complex traffic environments, but street signs and lane stripes are an inefficient way to communicate rules to a 21st century vehicle, says Avery Ash, head of autonomous mobility at INRIX, a transportation data company.

  • AVs depend on sensors and human-assisted machine learning to understand traffic rules, but something as simple as an obscured stop sign can be confusing to an AV.

What's happening: INRIX created a software tool that lets cities or road authorities build a digital representation of their local traffic rules and then share that catalog with AV developers and operators so they can train their self-driving vehicles.

  • 11 cities and road authorities — including Austin, Boston, Detroit and Miami — have signed on to use INRIX Road Rules since its introduction in 2018.
  • 4 AV companies — Jaguar Land Rover, May Mobility, nuTonomy and Renovo — are using those digital rules to program their self-driving systems.
  • The latest version also helps cities create a digital catalog of things like loading zones and parking restrictions for ride-hailing companies, dockless bike/scooter zones, and city infrastructure like fire hydrants and EV charging stations.

The bottom line: Mobility solutions are unique to every city. It's important for the public and private sectors to share critical information about the local rules of the road.

4. Driving the conversation

Pushing: Frustrated Musk shakes up Autopilot team (Amir Efrati — The Information)

  • My thought bubble: Musk's arbitrary timeline to deploy 1 million "full self-driving" cars on city streets and highways by 2020 is not easily accomplished, it seems. The rest of the industry is clucking I-told-you-sos.

Profit a comin': Amtrak has lost money for decades. A former airline CEO thinks he can fix it. (Ted Mann — The Wall Street Journal)

  • Why it matters: Congestion is killing cities, making intercity passenger rail important for transportation systems. But the changes being pushed by former Delta Air Lines chief Richard Anderson — like eliminating some long-distance routes in favor of more frequent service in urban areas — are angering everyone from train buffs to union officials.

Robotaxi extras: Waymo tests Wi-Fi in driverless taxis hoping perks can route it past rivals (Paresh Dave—Reuters)

  • The big picture: For all the hype about self-driving technology, what really matters is whether the ride experience is useful and convenient for consumers.
5. 1 fun thing: Nap pods

Passengers wait for taxis in Tokyo. Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Not everyone who rents a car drives it. In Japan, some people book cars to sleep, work or practice singing.

What's happening: Japanese car-sharing service Orix reviewed mileage records and discovered some of its vehicles were being returned after having "traveled no distance," reports Japan's Asahi Shimbun.

  • Other car-sharing services, including the market leader, Times24, saw a similar trend and surveyed their customers to try to solve the mystery.

The results were surprising:

  • One respondent said they rented vehicles to nap in or use for a workspace.
  • Another person stored bags and other personal belongings in the rental car when nearby coin lockers were full.
"I rented a car to eat a boxed meal that I bought at a convenience store because I couldn't find anywhere else to have lunch," said a 31-year-old who lives near Tokyo.

Most people surveyed by another car-sharing firm, NTT Docomo, said they slept or rested in rented cars, or used them as spots to talk with friends, family or business clients.

  • People also rented vehicles to watch TV, get dressed up for Halloween, practice singing, rapping and English conversation, and even do facial stretches said to reduce the size of their face.
Joann Muller