By on November 12, 2012

The night before had been short, but interesting. I find myself in a 7-Eleven parking lot, high on energy drinks. Backing up, I bump into something. A wall? A dog? A person? I panic, my car lurches forward, wheels spin, gravel imbeds in anybody and anything within range, I push harder on the brakes, but the car accelerates right into a convenience store filled with school children. They live, because an invisible hand cuts the engine, and my car comes to a bloodless halt.

I collect my glasses and my wits. I turn to the smiling man in the passenger seat, and say: “You want me to try again?”

We are at Toyota’s R&D Center in Higashifuji, and I turned into a lab rat for a series of in vitro experiments that show new safety technology by Toyota.

Toyota agrees with the NHTSA that pedal misapplication is THE cause of unintended acceleration. The convenience store scenario repeats itself with regularity, says Toyota:

Someone wants to get out of a parking lot, but absent-mindedly shifts into reverse instead of drive. Pushes on the gas, bumps into something in the back. Driver panics, reflexively shifts from reverse into drive, keeps foot on gas, shoots forward and crashes into something else, calls his lawyer. With the new system, a sonar in the back measures the distance to an obstacle, and if the driver won’t brake, the system will. Another system detects abnormal shifting, such as reverse to drive with foot on gas, and cuts engine output when that happens. Peace be upon all parking lots.

By the way, do you know who the NHTSA says is most prone to pedal misapplication? Women. Japan’s Institute for Traffic Accident Research and Data Analysis (ITARDA) is less sexist (they don’t have to , a lot of women don’t drive in Japan, or are “paper drivers) and comes to these graphic conclusions:

With that out of the way, Toyota asks me to run over a pedestrian. Hidden behind parked cars, he runs across the street.

I aim, I keep my foot on the gas – but my car foils vehicular murder (in this case of a dummy) with a g-force inducing brake maneuver.

Now that I am a trained killer, they ask me to kill myself. First, I am supposed to accelerate to inner-city speed. When I see a stationary car in front of me, I am instructed to keep driving. Being German, I follow orders. The car in front of me becomes very fast very big in the windshield. Then suddenly, I am thrown into the seat belts. A computer cheated death again.

With that ordeal behind me, and a sip of water down my throat, they make me accelerate to 45 mph, and aim at a car dawdling along in front of me. When an alarm sounds, I am supposed to tap the brakes only lightly. Again, the system takes over, slams the brakes for me, and avoids rear-ending the car in front and causing fatal trauma all around. Why the second scenario? Toyota says studies show that drivers often don’t slam hard enough on the brakes, or even “pump” them to keep brakes from locking up. With ABS, nothing locks up. Just stomp the brakes, or let Toyota’s system do the stomping for you.

This system may sound like what others have. Not so, says Toyota. Theirs works at real-world high speeds, and up to a speed differential of 60 km/h (37.2 mph). It works with millimeter RADAR.

All of these systems, possibly paired with some more, like see-in-the dark near infrared lights, automatic high-beam systems, and stuff I missed during an extended bathroom visit, is ready to go and will be available in an ominous “new sedan” that should appear “soon” in Japan, they say today, while refusing to say more. There are rumors floating around in Tokyo of a new big Crown car to come in December. We’ll see. If successful, the technology is sure to filter down to most new Toyotas, Lexi et al.

Should plaintiff lawyers be worried about this technology that may cut into their take? They are a clever bunch and will probably sue “because Toyota’s system should have prevented my client from killing the deceased, and it did not!”

PS: Why not more pictures? As much as we may have tried, Toyota’s black boxes kept us from running over pedestrians, cars, and hard obstacles. However, they utterly failed to prevent a pedestrian accident: My former friend and previously esteemed colleague Roger Schreffler of Ward’s Auto walked backwards into me with all his considerable heft, knocked me off my feet, which left a pricey Canon camera and a long lens in pieces. This either proves that humans are the weak link. Or that the competition between on-line sites is getting personal. Toyota graciously donated one of their photographers. I expect the pictures tomorrow. One will have a beautiful Mount Fuji. 

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