TOKYO — Denso is plunging into automated driving with a new system that debuts next year for its No. 1 customer, Toyota Motor Corp. But the engineer in charge of the development is less bullish on the prospect of jumping past Level 2 systems anytime soon.
Level 3 autonomous driving faces big safety hurdles because it requires the human driver to remain on alert to take control in emergencies. And Level 4, beyond the challenge of taking humans of out the equation altogether, must cope with enormous power-supply requirements.
"These are challenges we have to deal with," said Hajime Kumabe, executive director of the Japanese supplier's Tokyo r&d office, set up last year to tackle the task of autonomous driving.
Speaking with Automotive News during October's Tokyo Motor Show, Kumabe said Denso has readied a system that Toyota will deploy next summer in a Lexus nameplate.
That technology, called Highway Teammate, will enable the Lexus to automatically change lanes, follow lanes and pass vehicles in highway driving.
The advancement will work with an upgraded version of Toyota's Lexus Safety System + technology.
Denso supplies the forward radar, forward stereo camera and electronic control unit that is part of the current Lexus Safety System +. The version used for the Lexus Highway Teammate will get, from Denso, one more sensor and an additional ECU to be capable of higher-level calculations, Kumabe said.
But Highway Teammate won't be Level 3, he said.
Level 3 should be technically feasible in the early 2020s, Kumabe said. But a timeline for its commercialization is unclear because carmakers are increasingly skeptical of it, Kumabe said.
"Denso's opinion is that Level 3 is a bit of a compromise," he said. "I think that way of thinking is on the increase. Not many companies are declaring they want to do Level 3."
Some carmakers are thinking of skipping Level 3 and aiming straight for Level 4, which allows the car to drive by itself without needing a human on standby, said Denso's autonomous driving chief.
But Level 4 poses its own problems, he added.
For starters, there is the challenge of having to drive the car without any human involvement.
Level 4 systems also will require new energy-management strategies because their high-powered computing eats up so much electricity. That will be a critical issue in a future of electric vehicles because battery capacity will be a prized and finite commodity, Kumabe said.
Level 4 autonomous driving will require a lot of power, not just for calculating the car's course but also for cooling the complex onboard computers, Kumabe said.
The industry is looking at several ways to reduce the energy requirements, he added.
One tactic might be using artificial intelligence to reduce the calculation load. Another approach would be consolidating sensor functions to save electricity.
Engineers also are chasing more efficient semiconductors that are smaller and use less power.
In July, Denso and Toyota agreed to form a joint venture that will conduct advanced r&d on next-generation, in-vehicle semiconductors. That company, 51 percent owned by Denso, is expected to begin operations in April with around 500 employees.
But one thing is clear about energy consumption in tomorrow's Level 4 cars, he said: "We have to reduce it. We need better energy management for autonomous driving vehicles. "That is what we are doing development on at the moment."