Mom on a Mission

Installing a car seat is tough. Installing it correctly is even tougher. Jennifer Pelky and her team are working to fix that, winning The Tank 2 contest along the way

June 03, 2020

They say once you have a baby, you never stop worrying.

Is my child getting too much screen time?

Is my child reading enough books?

Is my child eating the right food?

There’s always something to think – and worry – about.

And yet, most families have a serious safety risk lurking in their car. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), three out of four child car seats aren’t installed correctly.  

Surprising? Not to Toyota Principal Engineer Jennifer Pelky.

A Winning Formula – Principal Engineer Jennifer Pelky (center), with her Toyota for Families team at The Tank 2 contest. The team’s car seat safety concept won this year’s competition. 

“With all the different seat and vehicle combinations that exist, it’s not hard to understand why installing a child safety seat can be challenging,” said Pelky. “So, while the number of incorrectly installed seats is alarming, it isn’t surprising. We need better tools that will help parents easily install their child’s safety seat correctly.”

As a principal engineer for Toyota, Pelky is obsessed with safety. But it’s also an issue she sees firsthand in her work as a Child Passenger Seat Technician (CPST) – helping families in her community install car seats.

“I became a CPST after having my first son,” said Pelky. “I had a hard time deciding which car seat to choose and install. It was pretty overwhelming, and that’s what got me involved in this issue. Then, after working with families in the field and hearing from so many customers, I could see parents were really struggling with this. I wanted to find a solution.”

She did. With the 2019 Innovation Fair looming, Pelky had a big idea: Toyota for Families – a digital toolkit to help parents and caregivers install car seats in an effort to keep kids safe in cars.

Pelky teamed up with a colleague, Principal Body Design Engineer Lindsay Babian, to make it a reality.

“We were working together on the Sienna, so we were already working on a family-friendly vehicle,” said Pelky. “Since she works in seat design, it was a natural fit. We both have young children, so we both know the struggle is real.”
Precious Cargo – Pelky knows choosing and installing a car seat can be an overwhelming experience – particularly when parents are balancing life with a new baby. A Buckle Up for Life study shows three out of four car seats are installed incorrectly.

Soon, the idea took shape: available on the Toyota app or via web browser, Toyota for Families would provide car seat installation videos and instructions, tailored to the customer’s specific vehicle, seating position and car seat type. It would also include tutorials for family-friendly vehicle safety features.

“Having these videos and instructions easily available to our customers, we believe, will equip them not only to install their child safety seats more quickly and easily, but also more safely,” said Babian.

Pelky and Babian co-developed Toyota for Families at Toyota’s North American R&D headquarters in Michigan. Soon after, they won first place in the customer prototype category at the 2019 Innovation Fair.

The pair channeled their momentum towards the subsequent The Tank 2 competition. They added colleagues from across the enterprise to round out their team – Suhail Mirza, Janelle Pharris and Ryan Johnston.

“Those teammates, in Connected Technologies and Marketing, really helped round out our team,” said Pelky. “It took us from a back-of-a-napkin concept into something fully formed.”

The Tank 2 judges agreed – and named them the winners. Chief Administrative Officer Chris Reynolds awarded the team approximately $350,000 to implement their idea.

“I couldn’t have gotten this idea off the ground without my team members,” said Pelky. “I would like to thank my entire team for their help and support, especially Lindsay, who has shared many a late night or weekend work session with me, while our kids fell asleep in each other’s living rooms.”

The team initially asked for $100,000 to produce content for five vehicles. But Reynolds’ funding will allow the team to provide support for the entire Toyota fleet. Pelky hopes to roll out Toyota for Families on a wide scale later this year.

“We’re a mobility company now,” Pelky says. “And when we say mobility for all, that includes our smallest passengers, too. We know three out of four car seats are installed incorrectly. Parents are trying their best, but clearly, something is missing. It’s up to us to make sure parents have the tools they need.”

Watch The Tank 2 finalists’ presentations here

By Kristen Orsborn

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