ABASHIRI, Japan — The redesigned 2018 Lexus LS can drive down the highway automatically steering itself around almost any curve as it stays centered in the lane — all while the driver sits back ensconced in its palatial luxury with little more than a fingertip on the wheel.
It sounds like an impressive milestone for Toyota Motor Corp.'s luxury brand — until you recall that Toyota's Japanese rival Nissan Motor Co. rolled out a similar technology a year ago called ProPilot.
Nissan's system is sold in Japan in the Serena family van and X-Trail crossover, two nameplates decidedly more pedestrian than Lexus' pricey flagship sedan.
To be sure, the new Lexus has plenty of other self-driving and advanced safety features, including an automated lane-change assist, that outgun much of the technology in the downmarket Nissans.
But the late rollout, coupled with Lexus' reluctance to call its systems "self-driving," fans the impression that Toyota is playing catch-up. It also spotlights the divergent paths Japan's two biggest carmakers, Toyota and Nissan, are taking toward an autonomous driving future.
"Typically, most people think Toyota is behind," said Takaki Nakanishi, an independent auto analyst in Tokyo. "But it's just that their approaches are different."
Aggressive Nissan is pursuing a mass- market strategy to deploy basic automated systems in volume vehicles, while waving the "autonomous driving" banner to cultivate the wow factor.
Circumspect Toyota, by contrast, is introducing the technology at the top of its product range and trickling it down to its mass-volume models as costs come down. Toyota demurs from touting its technology as "self-driving." It prefers to pitch the safety benefits rather than convenience.
"We need to be cautious with the term 'automated driving' to avoid misunderstanding and overconfidence, such as the idea drivers do not need to do anything in automated vehicles," said Ken Koibuchi, Toyota's executive general manager in charge of autonomous driving.
Still, Lexus touts the new LS, which arrives this fall, as the "safest car in the world."
Each strategy carries risks and rewards. Early mover Nissan may score brand recognition and quick sales, but it could also be stung if the nascent technologies prove troublesome. On the other hand, Toyota may find it harder to persuade people to pay extra for the tech if it is marketed under a safety message.
Nissan will try to cut costs off the bat by spreading the systems across volume models. But it could be saddled with wasted investments if the technology doesn't catch on. Meanwhile, Toyota is deploying it in luxury cars to better absorb cost — but low volumes may keep costs high.
The fifth-generation LS offers a peek at Toyota's plan. Automotive News got a first drive of the LS at a Japanese media event in northern Japan.