There’s hazy gray area materializing as the age of autonomy dawns. Located at the intersection where driving yourself ends and automated driving begins, not even the finest laser radar solutions demoed at the recent 2019 CES event can penetrate it.
If there was one key takeaway from my experience at this year’s CES as a guest of Toyota, it’s that there are some super smart people doing incredibly sophisticated work in a headlong effort to shove transportation into the future as quickly as possible. The goal is to anticipate and cater to your every whim and need while you’re whisked about in a cocoon of security and tranquility.
But the sobering reality that many both inside and out of the autonomous beltway are coming to is the day where you can jump into a car, tell it where you want it to go, kick your shoes off, and take a nap is still a long way off—perhaps generations away. (If you love driving, you probably like hearing that.)
What to do in the meantime? Maybe something like what Toyota is envisioning with its Guardian concept. As is the case with every mainstream automaker, Toyota has developed—and continues to develop—all manner of safety systems using laser radar (commonly known as lidar), traditional radar, high-definition cameras, and other sensors. They’re doing it both in house and by investing in partnerships with nimble tech companies who are pushing innovative solutions on these fronts and more. Many of the systems that will be relied upon are already in use, some of them for decades, such as anti-lock brakes. Others, such as adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warning, are more recent. Then there are the ones beginning wider deployment now, including automatic emergency braking and other advanced crash-avoidance systems.
The aim of Toyota Guardian is to take all of these various technologies and create a broader ecosystem of sorts that will not only assist, but in essence “amplify” the driver. Guardian “combines the strengths of humans with those of the machine,” said Dr. Gil Pratt, the CEO of Toyota Research Institute (TRI) and head of the Guardian project, which has been in development for the better part of a year now.
Unlike the more traditional thinking around autonomous and automated transportation, where there are no steering wheels or pedals and the car drives you—commonly referred to as Level 4 or 5 autonomy as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers—Guardian is more of, well, a guardian, waiting in the wings if needed. It will, like Tesla’s Autopilot and Cadillac’s Super Cruise, be able to essentially drive the car for you in most situations, but its overarching purpose is to be able to step in and assist the driver where needed. If it senses a perilous situation is approaching, or if the driver is having trouble staying awake or is otherwise incapacitated, it could take action. It could also help stabilize the car if some unexpected obstacle is encountered, though with all the advanced sensors it should be able to detect said obstacles and help you avoid them in the first place.
At least initially, Guardian is being developed to have the driver be the primary decision maker in most edge-case situations, but as it learns, it may start to intercede if it believes it can take corrective action quicker than the driver. TRI is using real-world testing and billions of simulation miles to help Guardian learn exponentially.
TRI believes so strongly in Guardian that at this year’s 2019 CES it announced it will eventually offer it to other companies, although no details were given as to how that handoff would take place if, say, another automaker were interested. And as with any advanced technology, it’s going to be a little while before it’s up and running on vehicles available for sale. We’re looking at least into the early 2020s before we see something along these lines in action.
Guardian isn’t TRI’s sole focus. It continues to work in parallel on what it calls its Chauffeur technologies, the Level 4 and 5 type systems that will allow you to kick back and not have to be engaged with the vehicle at all. As those systems start to come online, TRI envisions integrating them into the greater Guardian universe. It is also planning on taking the learnings from Guardian to help with Chauffeur system development.
While Pratt and his team work toward a day where cars drive ultimately us everywhere, all the time, in the present day he and the TRI team believe the Guardian approach is the best way to dramatically minimize crashes and ultimately save lives in the shortest amount of time. Until that day comes, we’ll be patiently waiting for a guardian in shining sheetmetal to help us navigate through the haze.