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Nagoya team working on robot to help elderly drivers stay alert, safe

Chunichi Shimbun

A research team at Nagoya University is developing a system to help the elderly drive safely using a small robot, with the aim of releasing the technology by 2019.

Authorities in Japan are stepping up measures aimed at encouraging the elderly to give up their driver’s license as the number of fatal road accidents involving drivers aged 75 or older shows no sign of decreasing.

But the research team, helmed by professor Hirofumi Aoki and associate professor Takahiro Tanaka of the university’s Institutes of Innovation for Future Society, hopes to create a society where they can still enjoy driving.

The team is developing a 20-cm tall robot that uses a friendly voice and gestures to give warnings to senior drivers.

“There are many blind spots at the intersection ahead,” the robot said from where it is perched next to the driver’s seat. “There’s a stop sign ahead,” it added.

“We found that it’s easier (for drivers) to be aware of warnings if we use visual information as well, instead of relying only on audio,” said Tanaka in his lab at the university.

The research kicked off in fiscal 2014 as part of the university’s Center of Innovation program, a joint industry-academia project that was established to study the transportation system of a super-aging society like Japan.

Following a sample study of 300 men and women aged in their 50s to 90s, the team discovered that it was not only the deterioration of their focus, vision and judgment as they aged that caused accidents, but also a reluctance by drivers to admit the decline of such physical abilities and their tendency to overestimate their driving ability.

When asked in a survey who they found easiest to accept advice from, most chose robots over their spouse or friends.

The system that is currently in development uses a built-in vehicle camera and radar to collect information from the surrounding area and combines it with map data from GPS to run an analysis.

The robot will warn the driver if the car is approaching a place where there is a high risk of an accident, such as intersections or roadside parking, and if there are pedestrians nearby.

If the driver does not take appropriate action and stop the car, the robot will apply the brakes or take other measures accordingly.

The system also comes with a learning function, which reviews the day’s driving and points out areas where the driver can improve, such as a faster brake response.

The research team will test the system on the road by the end of the year.

“To maintain our quality of life and health, it is important for us to be independent and be able to drive around by ourselves even after we age,” said Aoki. “We hope to create a society in which the elderly can live happily by using robots to support their declining physical abilities.”

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on May 3.