On The Road To Self-Driving Cars, Toyota's First Stop Is Crash-Free Camrys
Automated vehicles capable of taking over driving duties from humans like robotic chauffeurs are coming, though exactly when they get here remains fuzzy. In the runup to that, Toyota wants to leverage the same artificial intelligence and advanced sensors that self-driving cars rely on for a system it calls “Guardian” to achieve something equally remarkable: Cars that can’t crash.
“With a Guardian vehicle the palette of things the car can do would be way more than just using the steering wheel and stepping on the brake,” Ryan Eustice, vice president of autonomous driving for Toyota Research Institute, told Forbes at a recent briefing in Sonoma, Calif.
“Imagine going through an intersection and you’re going to get T-boned. The right thing for the car to do is accelerate you out of that. That requires a huge amount of understanding on the car’s part to be able to safely do that.”
Toyota’s new U.S. research arm, the $1 billion Silicon Valley unit created in 2015 to accelerate work on artificial intelligence, robotics and advanced materials, intends to deploy its automated car technology in two related applications, Guardian and Chauffeur. The latter embodies the goal of every autonomous vehicle program and likely arrives in the 2020s.
Guardian may be more meaningful in the near term, using AI-enabled controls to alert drivers of potential collisions and take evasive actions if that driver can’t, and to help prevent hitting pedestrians or cyclists.
“Guardian can probably be deployed sooner and more widely than Chauffeur,” TRI CEO Gill Pratt said at the briefing. Among TRI’s missions, “we are aiming to create a society with no fatalities from traffic accidents.”
TRI Vice President of Autonomous Driving Ryan Eustice, left, CFO Bob Ballinger, CEO Gill Pratt, center, Toyota Motor Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada, and TRI CTO James Kuffner, speak brief reporters and Prius Challenge attendees at the Sonoma Raceway on March 3. (Ohnsman) Ohnsman
TRI Vice President of Autonomous Driving Ryan Eustice, left, TRI CFO Chris Ballinger, TRI CEO Gill Pratt, center, Toyota Motor Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada, and TRI CTO James Kuffner, right, brief reporters and Prius Challenge attendees at the Sonoma Raceway on March 3. (Ohnsman)
Toyota isn’t saying exactly when this next-generation feature will be available for its Lexus line, top-selling Camrys and other Toyota models, though elements of may start showing up as part of planned enhancements coming within a couple of years. A key hardware upgrade that will make Guardian more likely is the addition of cloud-connectivity for Toyota vehicles. That should happen by 2019 when the carmaker will make a “communications module” standard for vehicles it sells in the U.S., Japan and China, Toyota Motor Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada said at the Sonoma briefing, without elaborating.
Toyota isn’t the first or only carmaker with a goal of crash-free vehicles. Volvo promotes a similar vision and Waymo, the Alphabet Inc. spinoff that was formerly Google’s Self-Driving Car project, cites safety as central to its pursuit of driverless technology. Given Toyota’s scale — it sells more than 10 million vehicles a year globally — any technology it commits to can have a major impact on the auto market. Emphasizing a pure safety-oriented application also aligns with consumer concerns, said analyst Ed Kim.
“Our data on autonomous technology, in terms of consumer surveys, shows a lot of interest in features that promote safety,” Kim, who is vice president of industry analysis for AutoPacific, a research company in Tustin, California, told Forbes. “Right now the idea of a fully autonomous vehicle is scary to a lot of people. Selling it as a feature that reduces accidents is the way to do it.”
Despite steady advances in automotive safety technology, including automatic electronic braking, blindspot monitoring and better crashworthiness, U.S. traffic fatalities have risen in recent years. More than 35,000 people were killed in accidents in 2015, up more than 7 percent from a year earlier, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And while federal figures for 2016 haven’t yet been released, the National Safety Council estimates U.S. road fatalities topped 40,000 last year.
The source of the increase?: Inattentive drivers distracted by texting, emailing and talking on their smartphones. “The number one cause of accidents is us,” Kim said.
Toyota U.S. Senior Vice President Bob Carter shows off the company’s Concept-i prototype at CES 2017 in Las Vegas. (Ohnsman) Alan Ohnsman
Toyota U.S. Senior Vice President Bob Carter shows off the company’s AI-enabled Concept-i prototype at CES 2017 in Las Vegas. (Ohnsman)
To work out programming and hardware kinks for Guardian and Chauffeur, TRI has begun using an updated autonomous test vehicle platform for research being done at its labs in Palo Alto, California, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s also logging vast numbers of miles of simulated driving, using cloud-based computing to recreate the most challenging road conditions imaginable to find any flaws in its technology.
Along with laser LiDAR, cameras and radar sensors on the car’s exterior for 360-degree high-definition vision, and the software and computing power to process all that visual information and data from the cloud, Guardian mode will require in-cabin monitoring of drivers to ensure they remain attentive and ready to handle tricky conditions. That’s likely to be done with interior cameras and biometric devices – and require consumer acceptance of a feature that some may find too invasive of their privacy.
Before Guardian intervenes to navigate through hazardous conditions, the system will try to alert drivers through audio, visual and haptic signals to get them to take actions to avoid accidents.
“We’re looking at the interior of the cabin and how this immense amount of information being sensed around the vehicle, 360-degrees all the time with sensors, how do we convey this in a meaningful way?” said Eustice, who is also a professor of robotics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
In the event those efforts to fail to sufficiently engage the driver, intervention by the system is the last resort to ensure three things, he said: “Don’t leave the road; don’t hit anyone; and don’t get hit by others.”