Automakers in Japan, where nearly 30% of the population is 65 or older, are leading the way in customizing cars so that the country's legions of older drivers can feel more confident and safe behind the wheel.
A series of accidents involving older people behind the wheel has increased pressure from regulators to standardize advanced features. For example, automatic brakes will be required for all new vehicles sold domestically starting this year, and Toyota Motor Corp. businesses. to Nissan Motor Co. apply smart technology to make cars more user-friendly for older people.
It is also becoming a priority as public railways in rural areas are disappearing, exacerbating an isolation crisis that was only made worse by the coronavirus pandemic. Without any means of getting around, the elderly in Japan are increasingly locked in their homes, and their lives shrink as transportation options evaporate.
A recent high-profile fatal accident brought the problem to the fore. Last February, Japanese prosecutors charged 89-year-old Kozo Iizuka on charges of negligence resulting in death and injury after a crash in the Ikebukuro district. The former senior bureaucrat was on his way to a French restaurant with his wife in April 2019 when his Toyota Prius plowed through a cross, killing a toddler and her mother and harming several others.
The accident made the headlines, not least because of Iizuka & # 39; s high government position. Public sentiment quickly turned against Iizuka, who is back in court this week after pleading innocent in October. The incident also sparked a national debate about the growing number of older drivers on Japanese roads. After the event, the number of elderly people who chose to park their wheels for good increased. According to the National Police Agency, 350,428 people are 75 years or older returned their driver's license in 2019, the highest ever.
“Young people are telling us seniors should turn in our driver's licenses, but they're not there,” said Hideaki Fukushima, 90, whose wife turned in her own driver's license around the time of the accident. The couple's children live in Nagoya, a two-hour drive away. In Takamori where they live, a small town in the central mountainous region of Japan, trains run by Central Japan Railway Co. only once every hour. “There's nothing you can do without a car,” says Fukushima.
Last year, Toyota has been Security feeling to offer. The technology is designed to prevent or mitigate frontal collisions and keep drivers in their lane. Using high-resolution cameras on the windshield and bumper-mounted radars, it can detect oncoming traffic or pedestrians – or even cycling in daylight – and provide audible and visual warnings. If the drivers do not respond, automatic braking can take place. The new software also has intersection functionality to detect oncoming obstacles when a car is turning from a stop.
Other Toyota Safety Sense features include the correction of unintentional lane departure, automatic switching between high and low beam at night depending on the surrounding traffic, and the detection of slower-moving cars on a highway and automatically following a preset distance. Road-sign Assistance technology detects stop and speed signs when they are passed and displays a dashboard warning in case drivers have missed them themselves.
“A society where older people can drive safely is crucial to their active social participation and healthier, fuller lives,” said Toyota. "Our ultimate goal is of course not to make any road traffic victims."
Subaru Corp.'s ambitions are comparable; it aims to eliminate all fatal accidents by 2030. Like several other car manufacturers, it uses stereo cameras, which have two or more lenses with a separate image sensor for each, allowing three-dimensional images to be captured. Dubbed Eyesight, the technology looks ahead and warns drivers of any danger. Subaru says Eyesight-equipped vehicles cause 61% fewer accidents and 85% fewer rear-end crashes. Pedestrian injuries are reduced by 35%.
“It would be impossible to eliminate all fatalities without using artificial intelligence,” said Subaru's Eiji Shibata, who oversees the development of EyeSight. To achieve its ambitious goal, Subaru plans to combine its stereo cameras with AI, assigning meaning to each object and attempting to accurately infer risk.
According to Shibata, this is not without its challenges. “It's a technologically difficult area,” he says. Stereo cameras are more difficult to install in mass-produced cars, in part because they convey more information than other sensors and require more complicated back-end support. "Equipping the technology in cars that people normally use is a daunting task."
A improved EyeSight X using autonomous technology debuted in the second generation of Subaru Levorg in August. Launched in Japan in November, the model has 360-degree detection and, like Toyota's improved technology, has an intersection assistant that can autonomously steer cars away from an impending collision. With EyeSight X, vehicles can even change lanes on their own and slow down for toll booths.
Nissan has mentioned a similar offer ProPilot that it expects to have at least 20 models in 20 markets worldwide by the end of 2023.
Takuya Matsunaga, who lost his wife and child in the 2019 accident, admits it is a good start, but adds that when selling cars, dealers should stress that these technologies are not fail-safe. “Anyone can cause an accident,” he says.
Matsunaga has joined Aino Kai, a road accident survivor support group. Aino Kai is also lobbying, calling on government officials to expand public transportation in regional centers.
"I don't want divisions like the young and the elderly hate each other," Matsunaga says. "We have to think about the people who suffer: the elderly in the countryside."
Top photo: Prototype Subaru Levorg vehicles equipped with the company's EyeSight driving support system were driven during a test drive in 2017.
Copyright 2021 Bloomberg.