Toyota will be launching nine new studies over the next five years to improve automotive safety, specifically in relation to how drivers engage with advanced driving aids equipped to modern vehicles. While the press release to a back seat to the automaker receiving an award for hiring female engineers and a $400,000 donation to the National Environmental Education Foundation, it’s likely to have broader ramifications on the industry.
Despite launching a bevy of new assistance features over the past few years, manufacturers haven’t actually spent all that much time studying how they might impact the act of driving. Testing usually focuses on ensuring the system functions, with independent research being left to examine how electronic helpers might influence behavior from behind the wheel. Unfortunately, preliminary studies have suggested that they lull motorists into a false sense of security, potentially offsetting any legitimate safety advantages the relevant technologies provide.
The industry has gotten better in recent years due to growing public scrutiny. But the cart was already placed before the horse, with companies releasing all manner of semi-autonomous driving systems for their high-end products while older features trickled down to entry-level vehicles before there had been much long-term testing. Though the handful of comprehensive studies that did come out seemed to indicate that the more help a driver was getting from the car, the less sharp their skills behind the wheel became.
Anecdotally, I’ve seen this phenomenon take place whenever I watch someone accustomed to modern cars hop into something without a lot of electronic assistance. Someone who has spent the last few years with automatic headlights or windshield wipers will undoubtedly become more flummoxed when needing to activate those systems than a person who has been driving around an older model that requires more DIY features. It could be argued that’s simply the nature of progress. But systems like automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping are harder to pin down. Despite having the potential to help someone totally avoid an accident, studies have shown they don’t always work as intended (especially when conditions are less than ideal). Combine that with the premise that they also might also be dulling your skillset as a motorist and you can see why Toyota might want to take a deeper look.
According to Automotive News, Toyota’s Collaborative Safety Research Center in Ann Arbor, MI, has invested $85 million over the last decade to fund 260 individual research programs — usually via partnerships with university-based researchers. In November of 2021, the company announced it would pony up an additional $30 million over the next five years to continue and expand areas of research with dozens of universities working on different areas of automotive safety. Better still, the data is open-source and available to anybody who wants to peer into the findings before they build their next automobile.
Among the newly funded research projects is a study being conducted with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which will try to determine what other things drivers do in the vehicle while Level 2 driving-assistance features are engaged. The study will put people in vehicles equipped with driving technologies and observe their behavior through driver-monitoring systems.
Another study, conducted with researchers at the University of Iowa, will look at how consumers should be educated about changes to the safety functions of their vehicle when it undergoes an over-the-air update, and how those technology changes impact driving performance and behavior. A third advanced driver-assistance systems-related study, being planned with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, will look at how to train drivers on the proper uses of assistance systems, including when those individuals have an uninformed or misinformed understanding of what those systems can do.
Other research projects will study how to make new drivers better drivers, improving safety for nonmotorists interacting with automobiles, the risk factors around heat-stroke dangers for children and animals in unattended vehicles, and avoiding intersection collisions using driver-assistance technologies.
With U.S. automotive fatalities having climbed in 2020 and 2021, this is probably something everyone should be looking into. Granted, the leading explanation for rising crash rates has been an aging population of drivers and increased substance abuse. But the poor execution of driving assistance suites, which the government seems to be extremely critical of when they’re coming from Tesla, may also be playing an important factor. I would personally also like Toyota to investigate how distracting centrally mounted touch screens are because they seem to be a genuine safety hazard that’s gone under the radar because the industry now has numerous revenue schemes tied to them.
“In the future, as our industry shifts to new technology in the area of connectivity, automation, shared service and electrification, we must not overlook the importance of people,” stated Shinichi Yasui, executive vice president at Toyota Motor North America Research and Development.
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