Ann Arbor engineers with Toyota develop app to help parents install car seats safely

Digital toolkit for 2021 Sienna, more vehicles to come

The Toyota for Families team accepts an award for the internal Tank2 competition. (R-L from middle) Jennifer Pelky, Lindsay Babian and Janelle Pharris. (Toyota Motors North America)

ANN ARBOR – What began as a conversation between colleagues at Toyota’s Michigan R&D facility has turned into a comprehensive, nationwide safety effort.

In 2019, Jennifer Pelky and Lindsay Babian were having lunch when they began talking about car seat safety. They realized that if they have difficulty installing child car seats as seat and safety engineers, what does that mean for the millions of parents, grandparents and guardians struggling with the same issue?

A mother of two, Pelky is a Toyota principal engineer of vehicle performance development for interior safety and vice chair-elect of the National Child Passenger Safety Board. A mother of one, Babian is a Toyota principal engineer of body design for seats.

When Pelky was about to have her first child, she recalled going to a big box store and being completely overwhelmed by the selection of car seats and how to install them. She called in the help of a colleague who was a certified child car seat specialist to install hers.

“I work in safety at an automotive manufacturer and if I’m struggling with this, how does someone with a different background get this done properly?” said Pelky.

Jennifer Pelky, Toyota principal engineer of vehicle performance development for interior safety, installs a car seat in the 2021 Sienna. (Toyota Motors North America)

Babian said she experienced the same challenge when installing her child’s car seat.

“I’m a seat design engineer,” said Babian. “I design and develop the parts that parents have to use in order to install their car seats and even I wasn’t getting it right.”

Taking into consideration that nearly 60 percent of car seats are installed incorrectly according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, they decided to do something about it.

The company was having an internal idea competition and the deadline for submissions was that day. Pelky and Babian sprung into action and passed through the first round. Toyota for Families was born for the 2021 Sienna, a car that was designed and developed here in Washtenaw County.

With plans to bring the app to customers, they needed a marketing and design expert to bring their toolkit to life.

Enter Janelle Pharris.

An advanced technology senior planner on the Product and Sales Engagement, Vehicle Marketing and Communications team at Toyota Motor North America, Pharris ran across Babian at a company event, who began telling her about the car seat safety guide idea. Pharris, a mother of two and former marketing specialist for a leading car seat manufacturer, loved the idea.

“Everyone knows they need a car seat, but they don’t realize its not beneficial if it’s not installed properly,” said Pharris.

Pharris helped lead the marketing effort for the app from her home base in Texas, including videos, photos and messaging. Pharris and Pelky also star in the Toyota for Families videos. The app went on to win Toyota’s internal Innovation Fair and Tank2 competitions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vehicle collisions are a leading cause of death among children in the United States despite best efforts. According to the NHTSA, car seats installed and used properly can reduce injuries in a crash by more than 70 percent, while properly installed and used booster seats can reduce the risk of injury by 45 percent.

How to use Toyota for Families

Sienna owners can access the toolkit by selecting their vehicle or entering its VIN on the Toyota website or within the Toyota Owners App. They can then select which seat they would like the car seat to be installed and enter the type of car seat they have.

If they’re unsure whether they should be using a rear-facing, forward-facing or booster seat, customers can also use the toolkit’s “help-me-choose” guide which generates suggestions based on their child’s age and weight.

Next, the user will find written step-by-step instructions and a custom video detailing how to install a generic child seat into the seat of choice in their vehicle. If there are any known issues with compatibility, the system will automatically alert the user, prompting them to choose a valid car seat and location combination.

2021 Toyota Sienna. (Toyota Motors North America)

These are Toyota’s goals for the toolkit:

  • Prospective customers at home or in a showroom can learn about family safety and convenience features while shopping for their vehicles.
  • Dealerships can use it as an education tool for customers to learn about safety and convenience features of their newly purchased vehicle. Or, if a customer comes in for service and has questions, the dealership can use it to help answer them.
  • Toyota drivers can use the app to find video and written instructions for installing their type of car seat in a specific seating position in their vehicle.

The women said that Toyota for Families was the ultimate passion project, combining their unique skill sets and expertise with the shared experience of being mothers.

“As a mother, my goal in all of this is to just help save the lives of at least one or two or more little precious elements of cargo that we carry in our Toyota vehicles,” said Pharris.

While the toolkit initially launched with the 2021 Sienna, Toyota plans to adapt written content and video directions to its other vehicles in the coming years.

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About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.