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Toyota seeks way to prevent car crashes, injuries

Nick DiUlio

2010 set a record low for traffic deaths, with nearly 33,000 crash-related fatalities. In an effort to bring that number down even more, Toyota has teamed up with several universities and research institutions to develop new ways of dissecting the many causes and effects of car accidents.

Spearheaded by the automaker’s Collaborative Safety Research Center, the focus on accident injuries, prevention and emergency response is part of a larger effort by Toyota to enhance the design, testing and implementation of new automotive safety innovations throughout the United States with a funding commitment of about $50 million.

Toyota’s new partners include MIT, Wake Forest University, Virginia Tech, Michigan’s Washtenaw Area Transportation Study and Wayne State University. In the end, the automaker intends to publish its research findings for federal officials, auto executives and academics.

Preventing pedestrian collisions is one goal of Toyota’s new research partnerships.

Sharing the Toyota center’s “talent, technology and data with a broad range of institutions represents a fundamental change for Toyota,” says Chuck Gulash, the center’s director. “We’re moving away from a traditional focus on proprietary research towards more openly sharing innovations that benefit the automotive industry and society as a whole.”

Protecting pedestrians

Of the 13 collaborative research projects sponsored by Toyota, two are concentrating on improving technologies designed to prevent an accident before it occurs.

The first is a five-year study by researchers at the Transportation Active Safety Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Led by Yaobin Chen, chairman and professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the institute, the study will develop various tests to look at the effectiveness of systems aimed at preventing pedestrian-related car accidents.

“We still don’t have any standards to test how well these systems work,” Chen says. “But it’s important to develop a standard so that consumers can better assess which technologies work best for them.”

Chen says this technology, which warns drivers of a potential pedestrian collision with visual and audio alerts or automatic braking, is fairly new to the consumer market. To better understand the effectiveness of the technology, Chen’s research team will examine crash data from federal databases and use the collected information to identify the most frequent pedestrian crash scenarios.

The study also will collect details on pedestrian behavior before mishaps, such as whether the pedestrians were wearing headphones or walking on roads or sidewalks. Since there’s little pedestrian pre-crash data available, Chen says researchers will use a vehicle equipped with a video data recorder to capture near-hits from actual on-the-road experiences.

“The human factor is also very important here,” Chen says. “For instance, different types of warnings work better for different types of drivers. Some respond better to visual alerts, and others respond better to auditory alerts.”

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute will embark on a three-year study of similar technology. Researchers will evaluate the benefits of lane-departure waning systems, which alert drivers if a vehicle begins to move out of its lane. This technology is a recent addition to the list of available automotive safety technologies, and the design and operation varies from car to car.

Better accident data

In an effort to collect more specific crash data than what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Toyota tapped the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study to conduct a two-year study that explores new ways of gathering post-crash accident data. By visiting myriad crash sites in the region, the study’s researchers aim to help prevent collisions by better understanding information that could be used to make vehicles, roads and highways safer.

“The data we collect should really impact the future quality of vehicles on the road and the safety of road design in general,” says Terri Blackmore, executive director of the Washtenaw group. “The more data they’ve got, the better an automaker can design preventive technologies.”

Traditionally, NHTSA’s crash databases contain information only from police reports of vehicle crashes nationwide. While these do include a variety of important details — such as road location, road condition, date, time and speed limit — the information is limited to what’s in the police reports. The data collected by Washtenaw group over the next two years will be more specific, focusing on everything from lane departure to the influence of pedestrians.

Injury prevention

The days of the crash test dummy are numbered, says King-Hay Yang, director of the Bioengineering Center and professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering at Wayne State University’s College of Engineering. Yang, along with colleagues Haojie Mao and Xin Jin, will head a more than four-year study to develop a better way of assessing possible injuries resulting from car crashes.

Yang says his study will focus on developing computer models of a 10-year-old child and an elderly female human body, two particular body types that have been historically neglected in crash-test scenarios.

“Very little attention has been paid to the child,” Yang says. “Pediatric crash test dummies are really just scaled-down versions of adult dummies, but this doesn’t give an accurate prediction of a child’s response to an accident.”

For instance, a child’s head is proportionally larger than his or her body, which plays a significant role in the unique injuries he or she can suffer compared with an adult. Yang’s computer models will be designed to consider this and several other developmental characteristics of a 10-year-old, such a rib and spine structure. The hope is that car manufacturers can design safer vehicles for children.

The same goes for senior women, whose bones are typically more brittle than a senior man’s.

“There hasn’t been a lot of attention paid to senior citizens in crash tests, and with females even less so,” says Yang, adding that the computer models to come from his study should give automakers the most precise crash-test injury scenarios possible.

“The crash test dummy was only designed to give us a risk assessment for certain regions of the body, but not specific organs,” Yang says. “With human body computer models, this can become a reality.”

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