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Toyota believes advanced, on-the-fly route-mapping capability will be a factor in dramatically reducing accident rates.

Toyota sticking with measured, ‘Teammate’ approach to autonomous development

One might expect Japan’s largest automaker to be “all-in” on promoting autonomous-driving technology, but Toyota has rather conspicuously avoided self-driving hype. Instead, said Kiyotaka Ise, the company’s chief safety technology officer and President of its Advanced R&D and Engineering Company, Toyota is being “more cautious than others” because it sees the chief promise of autonomy to be enhanced safety rather than enhanced convenience.

Definitely a little tamer than cars driving themselves across the country.

“Our stress with autonomous is safety first, a safer traffic environment,” insisted Ise in a recent interview with Automotive Engineering.

Instead of focusing on the gee-whiz potential of SAE Level 4-5 fully-autonomous driving, Ise said Toyota instead is concentrating on the driver-assist possibilities of Levels 2-3: the potential to drastically reduce or even eliminate accidents altogether—while still providing the driver with the opportunity to enjoy piloting the vehicle under conditions of choice. The autonomous vehicle works with the driver in a “mobility teammate” collaboration, a strategic concept Toyota revealed in 2015.

Ise won’t commit to a timeframe, but he admitted Toyota’s goal is no less than “accident-free society.” But it’s clear he means sooner than later.

Level 3 Teammate

Although many automakers and Tier 1 suppliers say it’s most logical to direct development resources to achieving high-level autonomy, skipping the “handoff” complications of Level 2-3 systems, Ise said Toyota’s mid-level autonomy focus makes the most sense to more quickly produce safer roads. That’s the endgame to which the company has been directing more than 20 years of autonomous-technology research from three primary corporate R&D channels: the Toyota Research Institute, the Collaborative Safety Research Center and Toyota Connected (formed in early 2016 to be Toyota’s “big data” hub).

Toyota’s efforts are focused on integration of sophisticated onboard active-safety features and systems, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication and automated-driving technology. The company has pledged, for example, to have its “Safety Sense” active-safety technology suite (pre-collision alert/avoidance, pedestrian detection, lane-departure assist, automatic headlight high-beam control and adaptive cruise control) standard for nearly every vehicle in the Toyota and Lexus model lines by the end of 2017.

Combine the onboard technology, Ise said, with V2I communication and go after a big-time reduction in intersection accidents, which account for a quarter of all vehicle fatalities in the U.S.

Toyota sees the approach extending into two distinct paths for its Mobility Teammate philosophy, a “Highway Teammate” and an “Urban Teammate.” The highway teammate is targeted at taking over the mundane and riskier aspects of highway driving; flip a switch when preparing to enter an Interstate, say, and the system automatically merges the vehicle, accelerates and brakes and changes lanes. Leaving the highway, the driver resumes control for the presumably more-engaging (or more complex, depending on one’s perspective) aspects of the trip. Highway Teammate is targeted for introduction in Japan sometime around 2020.

The urban teammate seeks to deliver automated driving in more-congested environments, where active-safety systems such as pedestrian detection and avoidance come into play.

According to Toyota’s description of the Teammate strategy, “This approach acknowledges the utility of automated-driving technologies while maintaining the fun experience of driving itself.”

AI to assume a larger role

As technology advances, Toyota sees artificial intelligence assuming a larger role, using LiDAR and camera vision to generate, on-the-fly, ultra-precise maps for the vehicle, but also for others in the vicinity or scheduled to use that road.

Meantime, Toyota safety executives are not unaware of the development hurdles surrounding the driver handoff required for engaging and disengaging with Level 2-3 autonomous systems. They’re studying the most effective methods to alert and inform the driver and hope to standardize that interface.

Ise also acknowledges that different world regions will adopt autonomy at a different pace. In Japan, he said, the Urban Teammate concept is more critical than in the U.S., where more suburbanized driving, lengthy highway travel and more crashes with big trucks might suggest quicker adoption of Level 4-5 autonomy.

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