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Honda studies the brain to develop smarter driver-assist systems

Automaker hopes to customize safety features to achieve zero road deaths by 2050

Honda researchers want to know more about brain activity when driving. (Source photos by Reuters and Kotaro Abe) 

TOKYO -- Honda Motor has begun exploring deep inside the human brain in an effort to develop more powerful technologies to make driving safer.

In one of its latest projects, the Japanese automaker is using behavioral neuroscience to create a driver-assist system that makes driving vastly safer. By the middle of the century, Honda hopes that none of its vehicles will be involved in fatal accidents, as it banks on its studies of the brain to tailor safety features to individual drivers.

Honda researchers recently gathered 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 watched intently as MRI images displayed the brain activity of a person operating a driving simulator. "This driver is not seeing around the car," one of them observed.

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 accident-inclined.

Achieving this requires identifying which part of the brain is responsible for a certain cognitive function. One of the researchers says, "An essential factor behind the human errors that cause accidents is a brain that fails to help a person respond properly to environmental conditions."

The project has found that factors behind similar traffic accidents can be quite different. Take an accident where a vehicle hits a pedestrian, for instance. In some such cases, the driver simply fails to see the pedestrian, while in others the driver sees the person but fails to recognize risk. The research also discovered that different parts of the brain were involved in these two examples.

Each person's brain works differently when driving, pointing to the need for technology that takes into account the differences. Armed with this knowledge, Honda is looking at brain activity to develop technologies for custom driver-assist systems based on driving history and habits.

The goal is unabashedly ambitious: eliminate all fatal accidents involving its vehicles -- including motorcycles -- by 2050. The maker created a buzz recently by announcing its new green car agenda, which calls for ending sales of gasoline-powered cars by 2040 and focusing on electric vehicles. But safety is as important as environmental concerns to the company's long-term business plans.

Honda President Toshihiro Mibe says driving safety is "a big pillar" of the company's strategy, an issue that is as crucial as protecting the environment. "Honda will lead the way toward a future without fatal traffic accidents," he said.

Despite having nearly three decades before the self-imposed 2050 deadline, Honda researchers are far from optimistic. "This is a very challenging target," says Hideaki Takaishi, a senior safety engineer at the company. "The next 10 years will be important."

Given typical vehicle replacement cycles, Honda needs to have the technologies solidly established by around 2030 to meet its goal. The mission will be further complicated by the fact that it is the world's largest maker of motorcycles.

Accidents involving two-wheeled vehicles tend to cause more serious injuries than those of cars. There are countries and areas where safety requirements for motorcyclists are not as strict as in Japan, which mandates a helmet when operating a motorcycle or motor scooter.

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

Existing safety systems for four-wheel vehicles are designed to deal with risks that have emerged, such as obstacles and other vehicles. Improving technology for these situations can obviously help reduce accidents. But this approach alone cannot ensure zero fatalities because many other factors can result in fatal accidents, Takaishi noted.

To entirely eradicate deadly crashes, Takaishi says it is imperative to develop systems that can detect signs of risky driver behavior as well as that of nearby cars, then warn all drivers in the vicinity.

Drivers not feeling their best, for example, may be slow to react to hazards. Even if a vehicle appears to be operating normally, the odds of an accident could grow over time with even slightly impaired drivers. A safety system that could ascertain this kind of risk could alert the driver and warn vehicles in the area to keep their distance.

But until safety systems know their drivers well, they will be limited. Hence, Honda's foray into brain science.

In addition to delving into 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 tips.

The system would examine driver tendencies then offer advice for safer operation via voice guidance. Issues such as maintaining the proper distance between other vehicles and the timing of accelerating and decelerating could help drivers overcome bad habits. Similar to an instructor at a driving school, the system would tell the driver to apply brakes earlier, for instance, or anticipate highway dangers.

In addition, the system would teach safe driving skills, such as advising drivers of risks to keep in mind when driving at night. To make the entire system more palatable for some, it would classify the topics into entry, basic and advanced levels, employing the gaming method to help the driver learn.

Importantly, any new safety system would have to educate the driver on its proper usage. The system would teach the driver how to activate and operate features such as automatically following another vehicle or keeping the vehicle centered in one's own lane.

Honda has no definite schedule on when it will launch this futuristic driver-assist technology but has already successfully tested beta versions on public roads.

When -- or if -- full 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 thinking is that humans should play the leading role when behind the wheel.

The number of people opting out of car ownership is growing, due partly to the rising availability of car-sharing services. "In developing cars that are to be privately owned, 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 study of the human brain adds to its bottom line. But there is no doubt that its drive toward developing safety technologies will help it keep pace with rivals.

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