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Toyota Unveils an Autonomous Car, but Says It’ll Keep Drivers in Control

The carmaker discusses research that could make cars autonomous and eliminate traffic fatalities.
January 7, 2013

Toyota, the Japanese auto giant, hopes to sell more of its cars to people while giving them less of a role in piloting those vehicles. At a press conference at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Monday, the company showed off a research vehicle intended as a test bed for ideas to make its vehicles more autonomous, particularly in dangerous situations.

Smooth ride: This Lexus LS is being used by Toyota to test autonomous driving technology.

The Advanced Safety Research Vehicle is based on a Lexus LS and used for research at the Toyota Research Institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The car carries forward-looking and side-facing millimeter-wave radar sensors, as well as a 360-degree laser scanner that collects three-dimensional data on anything nearby. Onboard computers use data from those scanners, and data collected from the engine and wheels, to make sense of the car’s surroundings, and operate the car’s controls.

“Our goal is a system that constantly perceives, processes, and responds to its surroundings,” said Mark Templin, group vice president and general manager of Toyota’s Lexus division. He said the system would detect possible obstacles and collisions and act to avoid them.

Toyota is also working to allow a car to understand road and traffic conditions much as a human driver would—for example, by observing traffic signals. “That may, over time, evolve into a fully autonomous car,” said Templin. The research is motivated by a desire to “eliminate future traffic-related fatalities and injuries.”

Templin predicted a “layered introduction of automated technologies” over time, without offering any specific timeline for particular technologies to reach drivers. “We can’t speculate on when such a vehicle might be available in the marketplace,” he said.

Some Lexus LS models can already predict impending collisions and apply the brakes, alert the driver, and adjust the response of steering and suspension. Those cars sense their surroundings using millimeter-wave radar, infrared projectors, and stereo cameras.

However—despite signaling that Toyota’s research was leading it in that direction—Templin added that he didn’t see “autonomous” as being synonymous with “driverless.” Even as successively advanced autonomous features are introduced to Toyota and Lexus vehicles, he said, humans would remain in control. A future car could be considered a “skilled, intelligent, and attentive copilot.”

That could be interpreted as a marketing strategy as much as a technology one, and puts the company at odds with Google, which has for several years run what is likely the most advanced autonomous vehicle research program (see “Look, No Hands”). The company has been clear that it intends to demote humans from drivers to passengers in the name of safety.

Google says its cars have driven over 300,000 miles on freeways and city streets—always with a person in the driver’s seat ready to seize control. The company’s cofounder and CEO, Larry Page, and previous CEO and current president, Eric Schmidt, are both personally passionate about the project. They claim that as well as improving safety, autonomous vehicles could reduce environmental damage and traffic congestion, because automated cars would spend less time unused and could be coördinated to prevent road jams.

Page will sometimes dispatch one of Google’s cars to collect visitors to his Mountain View, California, office, a preview of a future service he imagines where cars are summoned automatically when a person’s phone indicates that he is about to leave his office building. As yet, though, Google has not given any public clues about how its technology might make it into commercially available cars.

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