BRUSSELS — Toyota sounded a cautionary note on self-driving cars amid the global hype that fully autonomous vehicles could soon become a regular sight on public roads.
The focus on increasingly sophisticated stages of autonomous driving that lead to Level 5 cars, which need no steering wheel or human input, is misplaced, according to Toyota's top researchers.
Level 5 cars will need an achievement in performance in artificial intelligence that no one knows how to do, Gill Pratt, head of the Toyota Research Institute, said last month at a seminar in Toyota’s technical center near Brussels.
"If someone gives you a timetable for Level 5, you should quiz them hard. These are early days in the long journey," Pratt said.
German premium brands are racing to add advanced autonomous features to their vehicles in a bid to catch up with pioneer Tesla. Audi, for example, says its latest A8 flagship sedan is the first production car with Level 3 capability, which allows hands-free driving but requires the driver to take back control at any time.
Toyota is taking a relatively conservative, safety-based approach toward autonomous vehicle technologies, with the ultimate aim of zero casualties from traffic accidents, Pratt said.
The automaker has already deployed a suite of accident-avoidance systems throughout its range. They will be followed by more advanced features that will allow hands-off highway driving starting in 2020, Toyota executives said at the seminar here.
"Our goal is to create a car that will never be responsible for a crash, regardless of what the driver does,” said Pratt, who last year was named to head the new institute, which has an initial budget of $1 billion.
Vehicle-related accidents, which total 1.3 million annually, are responsible for a tiny fraction of all road deaths, but Pratt said they take an especially heavy toll on teenagers. Because such accidents are unanticipated, they can severely disrupt the lives of family members and friends, he said.
Toyota will offer Level 2 features in 2020, with Highway Teammate. Vehicles with the feature will be able to automatically merge, overtake and change lanes on highways. A Level 4 feature allowing driving on all public roads, called Urban Teammate, would be launched some time after that.
A number of automakers have said they will avoid Level 3 autonomy because of uncertainties about a driver’s ability to retake control fast enough to avoid an accident. The SAE global engineers association defines Level 3 as "conditional automation" in which the "human driver will respond appropriately to a request to intervene." Pratt said Toyota’s position is that Level 3 is not sufficiently well defined to make it a priority.
"We are not aiming at SAE signposts,” he said. "Our goal remains safety."
"There is tremendous attention to who is leading the race,” Pratt said. "Our assessment is that Toyota is doing pretty well."
Seigo Kuzumaki, Toyota's assistant chief safety officer, said: "Toyota supports SAE level definitions but understands there are challenges in the car-to-driver handover when the system cannot drive on its own. "In addition we need to think about changes in driving conditions such as weather, but the SAE doesn’t cover such factors," he said.
Toyota’s accident avoidance features are fitted on 92 percent of the company’s European sales. They are packaged as Toyota Safety Sense and the Lexus Safety System Plus and include adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert, Autonomous Emergency Braking, pre-collision warnings, Road Sign Assist and automatic headlights that toggle between low and high beams. Lexus models add active lane keeping and a more sophisticated adaptive high beam system.
Toyota’s most sophisticated package of features, introduced in the fifth-generation Lexus LS flagship model, is called Lexus Safety System Plus A. It adds automatic steering to prevent collisions that cannot be avoided through braking alone; a cross-traffic alert; and parking support, which brakes automatically if a pedestrian is detected behind the car.
All told, the Lexus Safety System Plus A covers nearly 50 percent of all fatal vehicle accident causes, including front and rear collisions, pedestrian and cyclists, lane departure, and driver emergencies and drowsiness, Toyota says.
Toyota’s conservative stance toward autonomous vehicles is reflected in a report this year by Navigant Research that ranks the Japanese company 13th of 18 major automakers and suppliers in the race to deploy the technology.
"While Toyota does not want to be left behind in the race to develop automated driving technology, it is taking a much more conservative approach to deployment than many other OEMs,” Navigant said in the report.
“They want to make sure that they really get the technology right,” said Sam Abuelsamid, a Detroit-based analyst at Navigant. “They don't want to rush it to market and put something out there that is necessarily going to perhaps create more problems than it solves.”
Abuelsamid said Toyota was moving “more aggressively” to include advanced driver-assistance systems in its vehicles, “not just at the high end with the Lexus LS, but across their lineup.”
“Their emphasis is on getting the technologies in there that are going to get you the best bang for the buck in terms of covering the most potential accident scenarios, and being affordable enough to get them into as many vehicles as possible,” he said.
Mobility services growth
Safety benefits aside, Pratt said that autonomous technology research was being driven by a need to remain competitive with other automakers. "We want to be honest about other reasons why we are spending so much money on this," he said. "Of course some of the competition is happening in order to affect what happens in the dealership — the purchase of personally owned vehicles."
Another reason is the anticipated growth in mobility as a service, or MAAS, which includes car sharing, automated taxis and ride-hailing companies like Uber in which Toyota has a small stake. "It's estimated that the size of the MAAS market is between five and 10 times as large as the personally owned vehicle market," he said. With the largest cost being drivers, autonomous features could reduce the per-kilometer cost by 50 percent, he said.