Toyota restarts self-driving shuttle fleet following collision with Paralympian

TOKYO – Toyota Motor Corp. will resume operation of its e-Palette self-driving people movers at the Paralympic Games after trouble-shooting an accident last week in which one of the new mobility vehicles hit a visually impaired judoka at an intersection in the athlete village.

Toyota said Monday it adopted several safety improvement measures in conjunction with the Paralympic organizing committee, and the body agreed to restart e-Palette service at 3 p.m. local time on Tuesday. Service was suspended last Thursday, after the accident.

The collision left a visually impaired athlete, Japanese judo veteran Aramitsu Kitazono, with bruises, forcing him to miss competition over the weekend, local media reported.

Kitazono was crossing in the crosswalk when the Toyota e-Palette, traveling at 1 to 2 kilometers per hour (0.62 to 1.24 mph) struck him. Toyota President Akio Toyoda apologized for the accident in a YouTube interview, while lamenting the limitations of today’s automated driving.

Under normal operations, Toyota said, the self-driving e-Palette — which has two human safety operators onboard — stops automatically when its sensors detect a pedestrian entering an intersection. The onboard operators then manually resume operations when they confirm safe passage. Human traffic directors in the intersections also help guard against accidents.

In last week’s case, however, the e-Palette and onboard operators activated the brakes too late.

Local media said one factor in the incident was apparently that the onboard operator mistakenly thought Kitazono would realize the e-Palette was coming and stop walking.

Toyota will make several safety improvements in resuming service. First, the e-Palette’s warning sounds will be louder. Acceleration and stopping will be handled manually, not automatically. And e-Palette operators will get beefed-up training to account for a wider range of scenarios.

Meanwhile, the local infrastructure will be bolstered by increasing the number of human traffic directors at intersections from six to more than 20. At the same time, some traffic guides will be dedicated to directing vehicles; others will be responsible for handling pedestrians.

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