Honda studies the brain to develop smarter driver assistance systems


TOKYO – Honda Motor has started to explore the depths of the human brain with the aim of developing more powerful technologies to make driving safer.

In one of its latest projects, the Japanese automaker is using behavioral neuroscience to create a driver assistance system that makes driving much safer. By mid-century, Honda hopes none of its vehicles will be involved in fatal crashes, as it relies on its brain studies to tailor safety features to each driver.

Honda researchers recently met at the National Institutes for Quantum and Radiological Science and Technology, a government-funded research institute focused on quantum science in the city of Chiba, near Tokyo. They carefully observed the MRI images showing the brain activity of a person using a driving simulator. “This driver cannot see around the car,” observed one of them.

The researchers are involved in a project to identify the cognitive tendencies and perceptions required for safe driving by comparing the brains of people who drive safely with those who are more prone to accidents.

To achieve this, it is necessary to identify which part of the brain is responsible for a certain cognitive function. One of the researchers said: “A critical factor behind human errors that cause accidents is a brain that fails to help a person respond properly to environmental conditions.”

The project discovered that the factors causing similar traffic accidents can be very different. Take an accident where a vehicle hits a pedestrian, for example. In some cases the driver simply does not see the pedestrian, while in others the driver sees the person but does not recognize the risk. Research also found that different parts of the brain were involved in these two examples.

Every person’s brain works differently when driving, highlighting the need for technology that takes differences into account. Based on this knowledge, Honda is studying brain activity to develop technologies for personalized driver assistance systems based on driving history and habits.

The goal is decidedly ambitious: to eliminate all fatal accidents involving its vehicles – including motorcycles – by 2050. The automaker recently caused a sensation by announcing its new green car program, which calls for an end to car sales gasoline by 2040 and focus on electric vehicles. But safety is as important as environmental concerns in a company’s long-term business plans.

Honda president Toshihiro Mibe said safe driving is “a big pillar” of the company’s strategy, an issue as crucial as protecting the environment. “Honda will pave the way for a future without fatal traffic accidents,” he said.

Despite nearly three decades before the self-imposed 2050 deadline, Honda researchers are far from optimistic. “This is a very ambitious goal,” says Hideaki Takaishi, the company’s senior security engineer. “The next 10 years will be important.

Given typical vehicle replacement cycles, Honda must have the technologies firmly established by 2030 to achieve its goal. The mission will be further complicated by the fact that it is the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer.

Accidents involving two-wheeled vehicles tend to cause more serious injuries than those involving cars. There are countries and regions where safety requirements for motorcyclists are not as stringent as in Japan, which requires helmets to be worn while riding a motorcycle or scooter.

Takaishi says that achieving zero fatalities requires technologies to reduce and prevent existing risks as well as predict future ones.

Existing safety systems for four-wheeled vehicles are designed to cope with emerging risks, such as obstacles and other vehicles. Improving the technology for these situations can obviously help reduce accidents. But this approach alone cannot guarantee zero fatalities as many other factors can lead to fatal accidents, Takaishi noted.

To eradicate fatal crashes entirely, Takaishi says it’s imperative to develop systems that can detect signs of risky behavior from drivers as well as nearby cars, and then warn all nearby drivers.

Drivers who are not feeling their best, for example, may be slow to react to dangers. Even if a vehicle appears to be operating normally, the chances of an accident could increase over time even with slightly impaired drivers. A security system to detect this type of risk could alert the driver and warn vehicles in the area to keep their distance.

But until security systems get to know their drivers well, they will be limited. Therefore, Honda’s foray into brain science.

In addition to exploring the inner workings of the brain, Honda is also working on a system to improve driving skills. The idea is that the car can serve as a competent “instructor” to provide safe driving advice.

The system would examine driver trends and then offer advice for safer use via voice guidance. Problems such as maintaining an appropriate distance between other vehicles and the timing of acceleration and deceleration could help drivers overcome bad habits. Similar to an instructor at a driving school, the system would tell the driver to apply the brakes earlier, for example, or to anticipate road hazards.

In addition, the system would teach safe driving techniques, such as educating drivers about the risks to keep in mind when driving at night. To make the whole system more acceptable to some, it would categorize the topics into entry, basic, and advanced levels, using the in-game method to help the driver learn.

It is important to note that any new safety system should educate the driver on its proper use. The system would teach the driver how to activate and use features such as automatically following another vehicle or keeping the vehicle centered in its own lane.

Honda does not have a specific timeline for the launch of this futuristic driver assistance technology, but has already successfully tested beta versions on public roads.

When – or if – fully autonomous driving technology becomes a reality, driving skills will largely become irrelevant. Still, Honda wants its system to make driving safer while helping people hone their existing skills. The idea is that humans should take the lead when they are behind the wheel.

The number of people forgoing car ownership is increasing, in part due to the increasing availability of carsharing services. “By developing cars that must be owned by individuals, we focus on the pleasure of driving,” says Takaishi. “We are trying to develop a system that allows even people who are not confident in their skills to enjoy driving.”

It could be a long time before Honda’s human brain study improves its results. But there is no doubt that its drive to develop security technologies will help it keep pace with its competitors.

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