Toyota's luxury division, Lexus, joined Audi in showing off an early version of an autonomous car at the Consumer Electronics Show. Yet despite promising tests, Toyota officials caution that it will be many years before self-driving cars become the norm. "Everybody believes that there will be [autonomous vehicles] in the future," said Toyota's corporate manager for North American business strategies Jim Pisz. "But there has to be a willingness by society to accept this technology, and I don't think we're there yet."
Pisz points out that almost all the technology necessary for an autonomous car like the Advanced Active Safety Vehicle concept on display at CES is already offered on modern cars like the 2013 Lexus LS. He says Toyota and Lexus believe implementing blind spot warning systems, adaptive cruise control, and pre-collision braking is the first step toward cars that actually drive themselves.
"There's an image of the vehicle taking you somewhere like in The Jetsons' world. Ultimately there may be a driverless vehicle that does that… [But] I think we have to get to an automated future before we do an autonomous future," he said.
More importantly, automakers must convince drivers to trust that autonomous cars are safe. One of the first steps will be getting customers used to existing active-safety features that can take over to help avoid accidents. That will build the public's trust in allowing computers to help guide, brake, or accelerate cars. Next, legislators need to determine how autonomous cars will be treated by the law. Who is responsible for accidents, for instance? And if one autonomous car follows another on a public road, how much following distance should they leave?
"There are unprecedented questions that need researching and asking. Our government and lawmakers all need to be more educated on this technology," Pisz said.
Toyota also believes that autonomous cars need to be able to "talk" to one another and to the road around them -- so-called vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) systems. The company has built a special test track in Japan with V2I features that, for instance, allow traffic lights to "warn" oncoming cars that they will soon turn red. V2V features mean a car that encounters an obstacle on the road could relay a warning to other vehicles.
Pisz said that Japan already has much of that infrastructure in place; as we reported earlier this year, the Japanese government plans to overhaul its traffic signals with better V2I features. But domestically, Pisz said that's just not in the cards.
"Our country, economically, is not in a place that states and local governments are going to be able to afford beacons on every street corner," he said, "So it'll be up to the car manufacturers to have their cars talk to one another."
Pisz said that NHTSA and the FCC are currently in talks over a wireless standard for car-to-car communication, which will be partly based on the outcome of the V2V study taking place in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Pisz expects a decision on V2V and VSI communications this year.
Ultimately, Pisz said that Toyota and Lexus are not driven solely by a desire to launch autonomous cars. Those vehicles will come when they are ready for public consumption, but for now, the automakers are focused on making cars easier to drive, more user-friendly, and above all, safer.
"The reality is that each year we lose the equivalent [population] of Juneau, Alaska, to traffic accidents," he said. "And NHTSA says 93 percent of those fatalities are driver error."
A recent NHTSA report suggests that in 2011, 32,367 people were killed on American roads.
Toyota hopes that automated and semi-autonomous cars can prevent many of those car crashes and improve road safety. Eventually, combining more and more of those systems will lead to self-driving cars.
"The technology is ahead. The technology isn't the weakness of autonomous driving." Pisz said.