Toyota Resumes Self-Driving Shuttle After Paralympic Crash

Toyota temporarily suspended the use of its e-Palette self-driving shuttle pods late last week after an incident involving one of the vehicles striking a Paralympic athlete at low speeds. (Toyota)

One of Toyota's self-driving mobility pods collided with a visually impaired athlete at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo late last week, causing the auto manufacturer to halt all shuttle operations temporarily. The battery-electric, fully autonomous vehicle, called an e-Palette, was suspended for several days while the automaker increased its safety measures following the incident.

The accident occurred when the battery-powered e-Palette pulled away from an intersection. As the vehicle drove through a pedestrian crossing, it collided with Aramitsu Kitazono, a judo competitor from Japan. Kitazono, who is visually impaired, was not seriously injured.

The vehicle was reportedly driving at a speed of 1 to 2 kilometers per hour and under the operator's manual control, using the vehicle's joystick. As of Monday morning, Toyota increased the number of safety staff on board and turned up the volume of the vehicle's alert sounds before resuming operation.

Toyota, a title sponsor for the event, released a video on YouTube shortly after the accident in which their CEO, Akio Toyoda, apologized. "It shows that autonomous vehicles are not yet realistic for normal roads," said Toyoda in Japanese. He continued to apologize and added his concern for the athlete. "A vehicle is stronger than a person, so I was obviously worried about how they were," he said.

Meanwhile, Kitazono sustained cuts and bruises from the crash and pulled out of the competition. According to his coach, Yoshiyasu Endu, he is recovering but deflated. "He wanted to take good care of himself. We feel regret, but I think he is the most disappointed," Endo told the Japan Times.

Originally planned to play a more prominent role in the Olympics, the e-Palette pods were to transport tourists, athletes, and spectators for both the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. After the COVID-19 outbreak, Olympic organizers scaled down the entire event (including the transportation).

Toyota says it will open an investigation to determine the source of the crash and will cooperate fully with any external investigations. The automaker also says it is working closely with the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games to prevent any additional accidents.