In the Future, Your Seatbelt Could Be Tailored to Your Body

Good news! Maybe! Your car may soon be weighing and measuring you in the name of keeping you safe.
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If I say "the car of the future," you might think about Google's driverless car. Or Terrafugia's flying variety. Or, if you're feeling particularly bold, the Segway. In the near term, though, the cars of the future will probably stay pretty similar -- on the surface, at least -- to the vehicles we know today. They'll just be more responsive to their drivers and environments. They'll be automated, Toyota's Chris Hostetter says, rather than autonomous. 

In a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival this afternoon, Hostetter -- the company's vice president of strategic planning, who oversees strategic research and advanced product strategy -- discussed the future of the car from Toyota's perspective. "We're going to see more change in the past 10 years than we've seen in the last 100," Hostetter said.

One of those changes? Better seat belts -- seat belts that are customized to the people using them.

"Seatbelts have gone through evolutions," Hostetter said. The first patent for "a Safety-Belt for tourists" (which was "designed to be applied to the person, and provided with hooks and other attachments for securing the person to a fixed object") was issued in 1885. The three-point belt standard in most cars today was first introduced in Volvos in 1959. We've made marginal improvements in the belts since then, Hostetter pointed out, from making the belts safer for those with brittle bones to creating belts that will lock in place to maximize their ability to keep passengers locked in their chairs during impact. Yet for the most part, seat belts have been seat belts.

Yet "as we get into the future, we might design seatbelts for the individual driver," Hostetter said. "There could be seatbelts for children. There could be seatbelts that account for the way people actually sit in the car." There could be seatbelts, in short, that account for the diversity of people who rely on them to keep them safe. "So the technology of the seatbelt," Hostetter said, "will go from those two dimensions of retention and force limiting to perhaps being customized to the driver himself."

And that customization, furthermore, could take place automatically. A car's seat could automatically sense your height and weight, for example, and tailor the belt according to those specs. So you could have a customized seatbelt, ostensibly, even in a car you aren't used to driving or riding in. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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