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Toyota's Pedestrian Detection System: Can It Fix Toyota's Image Problem?

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Overview of the Pre-collision System (PCS) with Pedestrian-avoidance Steer Assist

Overview of the Pre-collision System (PCS) with Pedestrian-avoidance Steer Assist

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Last week, Prius owners sued Toyota over its pricey pre-collision safety system -- a system dubbed such a complete flop that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety won't even bother rating it. 

Coincidentally, Toyota also made two announcements last week intended to rebuild its reputation for safety. One centered around Automated Highway Driving Assist, a high-tech, autonomous-driving package that should debut by "the mid-2010s".

The other was called Pedestrian-avoidance Steer Assist. Like similar systems from other automakers, it's designed to identify pedestrians and alert drivers to their presence. However, Toyota takes things one step further.

Like the pedestrian-detection system found on the Lexus LS, Pedestrian-avoidance Steer Assist can apply brakes to avoid colliding with a pedestrian. However, the upcoming Pedestrian-avoidance Steer Assist can also steer the vehicle away from a pedestrian. As Toyota points out, that's hugely important, particularly "in cases where automatic braking alone is not sufficient, such as when the vehicle is travelling too fast or a pedestrian suddenly steps into the vehicle’s path".

As you can see from the illustration above, Pedestrian-avoidance Steer Assist deploys in four stages. The first is just a visual alarm, which pops up when the vehicle detects a pedestrian in its path. The second is an audible alarm, which is triggered when the system determines that a collision with the pedestrian is possible.

When Pedestrian-avoidance Steer Assist sees that a collision is "very likely", it begins to apply the brakes. And when the collision becomes "extremely likely", the force of braking increases, and the system works to steer the vehicle away from the pedestrian.

Toyota plans to reduce the price of the Lexus LS pedestrian-detection system -- the one without steering-assist -- and roll it out to other Toyota vehicles by 2015. However, there's no word yet on when the full Pedestrian-avoidance Steer Assist system will arrive.

IS IT ENOUGH?

It's fair to say that Toyota has seen its share of troubles the past few years -- the most notable being its headline-grabbing series of recalls in 2010. Toyota has finally begun to recover from all that bad press, and it's even been winning recall-related cases in court. However, there's a big difference between being judged "competent" by the public (or a judge) and being seen as a true safety leader.

Toyota does many things well: it has a reputation for building reliable vehicles that, though not always beautiful, hold up over time. And thanks largely to the Prius, it's built a reputation as a tech-forward company -- one with some eco-friendly credentials.

But when it comes to safety, Toyota has plenty of work to do. For the automaker to succeed on that front, it's crucial that systems like Pedestrian-avoidance Steer Assist arrive soon, so that the public can see first-hand what Toyota is doing. But it's equally important that when they do arrive, such systems work as advertised. Otherwise, they're just another lawsuit -- and image problem -- waiting to happen.

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