Toyota keeps its big recall alive

on Jun11

Toyota President Akio Toyoda at a news conference during the crisis. The company plans a new round of research projects following the crisis that will run through 2020. Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO — Seven years after Toyota Motor Corp.’s unintended acceleration debacle, the Japanese carmaker is keeping the legacy of the embarrassing global recall alive — but in a good way.

Toyota announced last month that it will pump $35 million into a second round of research projects following the recall, running through 2020. The program follows up on research Toyota initiated in 2011 in response to the recalls. That research wrapped up in December 2015.

Most automakers would hope a painful safety recall would simply slip from the public’s memory. Not Toyota.

Toyota responded to its 2009-10 unintended acceleration recall scandal with a public relations offensive to win back buyers. At the 2011 Detroit auto show, President Akio Toyoda announced the creation of the Collaborative Safety Research Center to look into the recall and related safety issues. Toyoda said at the time that it demonstrated Toyota’s commitment to safety after the quality lapses that led to the recalls of millions of Toyota and Lexus vehicles.

The new round of research, dubbed CSRC Next, falls under the center’s umbrella and will focus on autonomous and connected vehicles.

Never forget

The program’s extension through 2020 underscores Toyota’s continued obsession with the crisis, which Toyoda, the grandson of the company’s founder, considers a career turning point.

Even today, the company maintains a Quality Learning Center at its global headquarters in Toyota City as a kind of shrine to the memory of the recall crisis. Off-limits to outsiders, it chronicles the causes of worldwide recalls that broadsided Toyota’s sterling reputation for quality and sent sales temporarily tumbling. It also focuses on the company’s comeback, with the message that Toyota must never forget the lessons learned.

“A great deal of the motivation to establish CSRC was borne from the recall issues we faced,” Toyota spokeswoman Sonomi Aikawa said. “As a result, we will continue to contribute to new avenues of safe mobility, trying not to forget the experience at the time.”

University partners

CSRC Next will tackle a several topics:

• Integrating active and passive safety by using pre-crash sensors to improve protection.

• Building better models of user experience to improve driver-vehicle interaction.

• Studying driver-state detection to better monitor driver health and attentiveness.

• Applying big data to develop algorithms for the more accurate study of driving habits.

The next wave of research will cover eight projects in partnership with six universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Virginia Tech, Toyota said.

The program with MIT, for example, will work on new systems to enable autonomous vehicles to perceive and identify objects and better negotiate social interactions in traffic scenarios.

The CSRC is run out of the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.

In its first five years, it completed 44 research projects with 23 partner universities and published more than 200 papers on various safety-related topics, Toyota says.

It generated research, for example, that enhanced computerized crash simulations, inspired new test platforms for collision-avoidance systems and modeled new voice command systems.

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