Toyota system can sense pedestrians, avoid accidents

Toyota has developed a safety system that can automatically stop a car in the moments before a collision with a pedestrian.

The system, which will begin appearing in Toyota cars in the near future, is built on existing pre-collision detection technology that is already fitted in some Toyota cars and those of competitors. Those systems are designed to guard against collisions with large objects, such as stopped vehicles or walls, and don't do a good job when it comes to people.

Toyota's new system, which it says is a world's first, uses a millimeter wave radar and stereo camera to constantly monitor what's in front of the vehicle.

In a demonstration on Thursday at the company's Higashi Fuji Technical Center in Japan reporters were given the chance to drive a car fitted with the technology towards a mannequin in the roadway. (See video of the demonstration on YouTube.)

Toyota asked drivers to keep the car at a constant 40 kilometers per hour (25 miles per hour) and head straight for the mock pedestrian.

An audible warning first sounded when the system picked up the pedestrian and judged that a collision was possible. Moments later, when no change in the vehicle's speed or course was detected, the system prepared to stop the car.

Then, with the car approaching the mannequin fast, the brakes automatically applied and the seatbelts tightened slightly. With a slight screech the car came to an emergency stop a couple of meters from the mannequin.

The technology is one of several the center is working on that Toyota hopes will make driving safer.

In another building at the sprawling complex located at the foot of Mount Fuji, Toyota has one of the world's most advanced driving simulators.

Here a car is attached to a platform raised off the ground, the whole thing under a plastic dome and wired to computers that monitor every aspect of the way the car is being driven.

On the inside of the dome a 360-degree computer-generated image of a road and town make for a driving experience that's much more realistic than any video game. Fake road noise and computer-generated vibrations add to the feeling of being in a real car but that's not what makes it most special.

The entire platform the simulator sits on can move up to 20 meters from side to side and 35 meters from back to front. This means drivers even experience the forces they would when driving a real car.

Toyota uses the facility to simulate a variety of conditions and situations to a variety of drivers to gather data on how different people react when behind the wheel.

Around 1.2 million people are killed in road accidents every year, according to the World Health Organization. Road fatalities are expected to rise by two-thirds over the next two decades as the number of cars on the world's roads increases.

Technologies like the pedestrian detection system are meant to make driving safer and advance Toyota towards its goal of zero fatalities on the road -- an ambitious goal for sure.

Martyn Williams covers Japan and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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