Toyota's Electric Motor Sound Gets Spacey and its Safety Initiative is an Open Book
Toyota Motor Sales USA has gone space age with the synthetic motor sound to alert blind pedestrians of its electric cars on the road. The sound is more "Star Trek" than George Jetson, and to these ears is a bit quiet on the road, compared with the recorded sound. The electronic wheersh raises pitch under acceleration and lowers it under decel. It's designed to alert bicyclists as well as blind pedestrians that a car is present.
It will be added to the Toyota RAV4 EV, the Tesla Motors joint venture that goes on sale in 2012, as well as the Prius line and other hybrids and plug-in hybrids from the company. Toyota says the external sound system, which you can listen to here, can be turned off in Japanese market cars, but won't be driver-controlled in North America.
Toyota Motor Sales (TMS), the North American arm of Toyota Motor Company (ToMoCo), demonstrated the electric-power synthetic sound and showed off an autonomous Lexus LS600h with hardware and software that can detect pedestrians, at its Safety Seminar here this week. It also showed journalists a 35-mph barrier head-on crash test of its new 2012 Camry sedan. Toyota expects top crash ratings from both the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the tougher Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. There's no reason to think the 10-airbag car won't make it.
The automaker demonstrated its new, more open policy toward developing and sharing safety data and technology and its Collaborative Research Safety Center, which has entered into a number of partnerships to study and reduce traffic fatalities and injuries.
"The CSRC intends to publish as much of the research from its partnerships as possible to make it available to federal agencies, the industry and academia," said Chuck Gulash, CSRC's director and the Toyota Technical Center's senior executive engineer.
Toyota says the biggest improvement to come from its self examination due to last year's hit to its quality and safety reputation, as owners claimed unintended acceleration problems, is that TMS in the U.S. gained more freedom and autonomy from ToMoCo. These problems spun out of control as TMS's hands were tied in responding to the charges. It had to wait for ToMoCo's direction and approval.
Toyota funded $50 million over five years when it announced the CSRC project last January. This week, it announced its partners will include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab, the Transportation Active Safety Institute at Indiana University and Perdue University's Indianapolis campus, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Wake Forest School of Medicine, Washtenaw Area Transportation Study and the Wayne State University School of Medicine.
The CSRC's projects center on the most vulnerable passengers; children, and the most accident-prone drivers; teenagers and older seniors.
One of the most interesting and timely studies is MIT AgeLab's two-year project on driver distraction and cognition.
"We expect, at some point, that voice activation and feedback becomes a distraction" for drivers, especially older ones, said Jim Foley, of the Toyota Technical Center.
There has already been a consumer backlash against such systems as MyFordTouch, and the CSRC and the AgeLab will concentrate on cognitive demand, the question of whether drivers don't register what they see even when they're looking directly at an oncoming vehicle or other potential hazard, while they concentrate on the voice controls for infotainment systems.
Another study, conducted with the Michigan Tech Research Institute, looks at emerging active safety technology like lane-departure warning, blind-spot warning and pre-collision systems, the technology that potentially is leading us to the autonomous car.
This study is the first test of all systems, independent of a single manufacturer, says David LeBlanc, head of the Engineering Systems Group for the University of Michigan Research Transportation Institute. "In other words, we're going to test all systems."
Self-serving as the CSRC may be, no competitor appears to be as transparent and willing as Toyota to share and describe the pros and cons of controversial new technologies.