Self-Driving Car Crashes Are Inevitable. Could a Flying Airbag Help?

Design has the potential to tackle huge ethical questions with technology. And right now, one of those conundrums is both a real, practical problem and a philosophical quandary:  How should a self-driving car behave when it must choose between hurting or even killing its passenger or a pedestrian?


Co.Design reached out to some of our favorite design firms to see how they would tackle this life-or-death question–and how design might present a better solution–as part of our new conceptual design series, Provocation .

In response to the prompt, the Austin-based studio Argodesign  created a product that would let us have it both ways. The studio’s conceptual drone is, in essence, a flying airbag. It predicts collisions and zips to the predicted accident site, either inflating to create a layer of padding between car and person or pushing the person out of harm’s way. The firm was inspired by a classic comic book cliche: A bad guy is running down a woman with a baby, but not before Superman swoops in to save the day. In this case, Superman happens to be a drone–which is why Argodesign calls them Hero Drones .

Designed specifically for urban and suburban settings where these kinds of driverless vehicle and pedestrian collisions are most likely to occur, the fleet of Hero Drones would sit atop city streetlights. From that vantage point, the drones would survey the streets, using AI to monitor the movements of people and cars on the streets. When the system predicts a collision, it will communicate with the car’s AI to ensure that the software has decided to prioritize protecting the passenger at the risk of the pedestrian. Then, the drone disengages from the streetlight and propels itself to the scene, where it then pivots and inflates just before impact. These drones would have to fly fast, obviously, but Ficklin believes that the system’s predictive abilities and the ubiquity of streetlights would give the drones enough time to save pedestrians.

Argodesign’s designers, who have worked with auto companies before, believe it’s unlikely that carmakers will choose to stop putting the safety of their customers–the passengers–first when it comes to an autonomous system’s decision-making protocols. Pedestrians will likely always be their second priority, just like they are today. In a situation where the car’s AI always puts the passenger first, the drones put the pedestrian first.

“We’re setting up a competitive system, similar power of AI in the car, but advocating for the pedestrian,” says creative technologist Jared Ficklin, a partner at Argo. He says that if the car is responsible for protecting the passenger, then it makes sense to have another system that is responsible for keeping the pedestrian safe–like an ethical counterweight. 

[Image: Argodesign and Hayes Urban] Of course, Hero Drones don’t work quite  the same way as a superhero in a comic book, where, as Ficklin says, “you have to have spider sense or x-ray vision to see if the bad actor is going to do something.” In this case, the car is “quite ethical,” he says, and can alert the drones that it detects a collision so they can deploy faster. 


The Hero drone, as Argo’s renderings display it, is a public utility run by the Texas Department of Public Safety. The circular orange drones almost look like life rings, but each segment around the outer edge of the ring can inflate depending on what the drone needs to do to protect a pedestrian. “In civic design language you always want to justify to your tax base that you’re doing something to protect them,” Ficklin says. “So the things are orange, because they’re up there reminding you that you’re being protected, so you feel secure and thank your protectorate politic for keeping you so.”

But Ficklin can imagine other scenarios as well. The drones could be operated by governments, but they could also be run by private companies, or through public-private partnerships. Car companies, anticipating a giant legal suit if and when one of their self-driving vehicles kills a person, could also be the architects of the system. Or, it could start off how fire departments did–as subscription-only arms of insurance companies, where someone only comes to put out a fire at your house if you’ve paid into the system.

Ultimately, Ficklin believes that the worry about self-driving cars comes from deeper anxieties about losing control over technology. “This is actually about  losing agency, which is why we’re so obsessed with this conundrum that it’s become a meme,” he says. “We’re not talking about cars, we’ll talking about tech in general. I think it’s because we’re living in this moment of doubt.”

But Ficklin doesn’t believe that the “technology curve,” as he calls it–the positive trajectory of technology impacting human lives for good–has reached its peak yet. He and the Argo design team took issue with some elements of the 21st century trolley problem Co.Design presented to them, because he thinks that when autonomous vehicles get smart enough, they’ll truly eliminate any kind of error–though he did admit that there will always be things the system can’t predict.

Ultimately, the Hero is an affirmation of Ficklin’s optimistic view of how self-driving cars will transform our lives. “Like Superman, hopefully the Hero drone makes people think, ‘oh the world’s not an evil place where I have to be afraid.’”

This is the first entry in Co.Design’s new conceptual design series, Provocation. Check out the rest of the series as it’s published here .  [Click for More]