Kurt Verlin
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How Toyota Studies Posture to Improve Vehicle Safety

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Woman sits in front passenger seat of a car with her knee up
Photo: Igor Starkov via CC

With countless factors to consider, making a car safe isn’t easy. Automakers work hard to make the bodywork crumple in specific ways, to make the cabin as structurally strong as possible without compromising the rest of the car, and have lately equipped their models with increasingly complex suites of assistive features that can intervene on our behalf.

But with self-driving cars quickly becoming a reality, Toyota says automakers must also consider how people sit in cars when they are not driving, something that has largely been ignored in crash testing. Yet even before self-driving cars become widespread, the topic is already an important and relevant one with regard to passengers.

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Jason Hallman, an engineer at the Toyota Collaborative Safety Research Center, is leading research that explores how passengers change positions over the course of a drive, as well as during emergency situations.

“Current passenger safety regulations and ratings require that crash dummies remain in an upright posture, but vehicle passengers actually engage in a variety of activities in their seats,” he says. While in a car, passengers may eat, drink, talk to other passengers, and check their phones, all of which can lead to variations in postures that safety regulations don’t take into account.

Hallman’s team is working with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute to research how passengers behave in real-world driving. They installed video cameras in 75 vehicles to study the postures of more than 300 front-seat passengers over the course of nearly 3,000 trips. They also used a special vehicle equipped with 3D body scanners to monitor how passengers reacted to unexpected driving maneuvers, such as hard braking and swerving at high speeds.

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Hallman says his team’s findings can help enhance future safety systems. A starting point could be integrating the data into Toyota’s Total Human Model for Safety, which the company recently announced would be offered for free beginning in 2021.

Considering how long it took for female crash test dummies to be incorporated in vehicle crash testing, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s taken this long for an automaker to take a hard look at how posture can also be relevant. Well, at least Toyota is on the case now.