Google “Google driverless cars,” and you’ll turn up a small fleet of Toyota Priuses and Lexus RX crossovers testing with odd, Space Age-like equipment on their tops running around California and Nevada. Google, which has been experimenting with autonomous cars since the U.S. Defense department’s DARPA began conducting public competitions in the ‘00s, has favored Toyota products as the donor vehicles.
Now Toyota has unveiled its own driverless car – a “semi-autonomous” car at least – at the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show Monday in Las Vegas. Like Google with its Toyotas, Toyota Motor Company’s research into this technology traces its roots to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) programs of a few years ago. Automakers, engineers and scientists have been experimenting with autonomy since at least the 1980s, and the idea goes back as far as the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.
Toyota’s CES demonstration car is the Lexus LS Advanced Active Safety Vehicle, which indicates the world’s largest automaker is looking at autonomy as a trickle-down technology, unlike say, hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Indeed, much of the technology is rooted in the advanced safety systems already found in luxury and premium brands such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi and Volvo.
Toyota Motor Company also has constructed its own, 375,000-square-foot “urban driving experience,” called the Intelligent Transportation System, in Japan, says Jim Pisz, Toyota’s corporate manager for North American business strategies. The ITS is designed to simulate vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, and to develop systems that can detect and avoid pedestrians and other commuters, including bicyclists, motorcyclists and mass transit systems.
He emphasizes the LS Advanced Active Safety Vehicle’s ability to enhance a driver’s skills, rather than allow him or her to get to work in the morning safely handling a smartphone, without hands on the steering wheel.
“Toyota’s approach, really, is about safety. We have been developing autonomous systems that take the broad range of safety systems, and enhancing each of the products as we go along,” Pisz says. “We think that the driver should always be in control.”
Of course, we tend to think of an airline pilot in “control” even when autopilot is essentially flying the plane. Other automakers and suppliers have indicated that semi-autonomous systems more advanced than are already available on the market – adaptive cruise control, lane departure control and blind spot alerts – could be on the market within two or three years. This includes General Motors’ Cadillac SuperCruise, German automotive supplier Continental AG’s various systems, including the sensors that Google’s Toyotas use, and an undefined system Ford Motor Company says it’s developing. The latest systems being tested use a combination of global positioning (GPS), stereo cameras, radar and Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) laser tracking. The LS ASRV’s high-definition stereo camera is “carefully placed inside, next to the rearview mirror,” Pisz says. At night, the system can “see” a distance beyond what the headlamps allow.
“The vehicle systems are capable of task such as scanning movement of objects around it, identifying a green light and red light, and measuring the trajectory of the vehicle on the road,” Lexus said in its CES presentation Monday.
Its LS Advanced Active Safety Research Vehicle uses:
*A 360-degree LIDAR laser on the roof that detects objects around the car up to 70 meters (230 feet) away.
*Three high-definition color cameras that detect objects about 150 meters (492 feet) away, including traffic lights using the front cameras, and approaching vehicles using the side cameras.
*Radars on the front and sides of the car that measure the location and speed of objects to create a comprehensive field of vision at intersections.
*A distance indicator on a rear wheel measures travel distance and speed of the LS.
*An inertial measurements unit on the roof measures acceleration and angle changes to determine the car’s behavior.
*GPS antennas on the roof estimate angle and orientation even before the car is in motion.
Last year, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) announced a yearlong study to test equipment that would allow cars and trucks to “talk” to each other. Toyota is a partner in the program, as well as Mercedes-Benz, GM, Honda, Ford, Nissan, Hyundai-Kia and Volkswagen. Google successfully lobbied the California legislature for a law that allows autonomous driving in the state. There apparently was no prior law that made it illegal, though California now joins Arizona and Florida in explicitly legalizing it. Arizona began issuing special autonomous car plates late in 2012.