I am sitting in the back seat of a Toyota Prius hybrid on the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway near Haneda Airport during rush hour. From my location behind the passenger seat, I have a clear view of the driver.
We’re moving at 60 kilometers per hour (36 mph) when the driver suddenly takes his hands off the wheel, yet the car remains perfectly controlled as we exit the freeway, braking and accelerating to maintain a consistent following distance. How? Our Prius is connected to the one ahead of us via radio. The lead car controls our steering and uses a millimeter-wave frequency to measure the distance between vehicles maintaining a constant buffer as speeds change.
This is autonomous driving, Toyota Motors-style, made possible by the company’s Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control system developed as part of Toyota’s latest generation of driving-support systems.
Although several of its competitors have promised to introduce autonomous cars by 2020, Toyota believes it will take longer to replicate the working relationship between driver and car. It also doubts drivers will cede control to their cars easily, so it is focusing on driver-support systems rather than driver-free ones to bridge the gap.
At a recent Toyota-sponsored press tour, Toyota demonstrated a number of its technologies:
Pre-Collision System. In a vast parking lot marked into lanes, the car reaches cruising speed. The parking lot is empty, except for a parked van. As the car approaches the van, a mechanized human dummy appears. Before the driver reacts, the car slams on its brakes and steers right – avoiding the dummy without leaving its lane.
Panoramic View. By positioning four wide-angle cameras outside the cabin, Toyota gives drivers a view of the entire vehicle and its surroundings, allowing drivers to see pedestrians in what otherwise would be blind spots.
Lane Trace Control. This system adjusts a vehicle’s steering angle, speed and braking force to maintain an optimal position within a lane.
These technologies were installed in different vehicles; Toyota has not yet integrated them into a single package.
A TRUE RELATIONSHIP
To support its efforts, Toyota created a Collaborative Safety Research Center, which is pursuing 26 research projects with 16 universities and hospitals worldwide. Chuck Gulash, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan (USA), is the director.
“TOYOTA’S GOAL IS TO CREATE A TRUE INTER-RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE DRIVER AND AN INTELLIGENT VEHICLE.”CHUCK GULASH
DIRECTOR, TOYOTA COLLABORATIVE SAFETY RESEARCH CENTER
The job of controlling a vehicle has become infinitely more complex, Gulash explained. Today, drivers need to monitor information screens and heads-up displays while listening to voice prompts and a variety of warning sounds. Gulash said Toyota’s goal is to create a “true inter-relationship between the driver and an intelligent vehicle,” with the car and the driver as “teammates” who share the common goal of saving lives.
“The best teammates learn from each other,” Gulash said. “They watch, listen and remember. They adapt. They communicate. And they assist, when needed. Over time, a foundation of trust is built.”
PASSING THE BATON
Toyota is using Microsoft Kinect technology to program a car it calls the Driver Awareness Research Vehicle (DARV) to recognize multiple drivers. The stationary car and driver have a conversation about the destination before a trip begins; the car informs the driver about traffic conditions and suggests alternate routes.
Toyota also has worked with Stanford University’s driving simulator, which tracks brain activity with sensors and eye movements with electronic headgear, documenting the driver’s brain activity and behavior. “The simulator can shift from fully automated control, to driver in full control, to mixed control, instantly,” Gulash said.
Such tracking technology could help create a system in which a car driving itself in autonomous mode could send a “take over now” alert to the driver if the vehicle senses conditions are becoming too complex for it to manage.
But will humans be able to develop situational awareness and react fast enough if a car suddenly throws control back to them? Toyota is trying to find the answer, but the question is one reason the company doubts the mass market will be ready for fully autonomous cars any time soon. The balance between human and machine may shift to some extent, but Gulash and his team believe that humans will need to retain ultimate control — at least for now. ◆