By on January 5, 2017

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The Toyota Motor Corporation is a little skeptical of the imminency of self-driving vehicles. It plans on continuing production of designs where human operators are saddled with the bulk of the driving responsibilities for years to come.

The automaker is openly dubious that tech-focused companies like Waymo and Tesla are sufficiently far enough along to hint at delivering self-driving cars. However, Toyota’s problem with handing the keys to a computer has as much to do with leaving companies open to litigation and criticism as it does with the technology simply not yet being ready.

North America expects millions of traffic accidents every year, but is much less willing to accept computer-controlled chaos at even a fraction of that scale. 

“None of us in the automobile or IT industries are close to achieving true Level 5 autonomy,” said Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota’a Research Institute, at this year’s CES. “It will take many years of machine learning and many more miles than anyone has logged of both simulated and real-world testing to achieve the perfection required.’’

Pratt’s background makes him an excellent candidate to call bullshit. Previously, Pratt served as the top robotics expert for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Toyota hired him to lead its charge into automotive Artificial Intelligence and autonomous technology. The company spent over a billion dollars establishing its research institute, populating it with the best minds associated with AI and robotic engineering.

Could it be that Toyota is just behind the times? Tesla is already making promises that every new car it makes will have the hardware required for total self-driving capabilities. Google’s car project has transformed into Waymo, and claims its fleet of autonomous Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids is ready to go. Even Uber has tested self-steering Volvos and Fords on public roads.

Toyota says that, for the most part, automakers will focus on what SAE International considers Level 2 autonomy. Anything higher would be nonviable without a lot more testing, it claims.

“It was a surprisingly sober and realistic view of the challenges that autonomous vehicles face,’’ Mike Dovorany, an analyst at The Carlab, told Bloomberg. “I give them kudos.’’

According to Pratt, the safest and most lucrative course of action is to provide Level 2 autonomy where computers have some control over steering, speed, and braking, but require a human operator to maintain control. When the technology is ready, however, Toyota says it may just skip Level 3 and implement Level 4.

The jump would avoid an era of less-trustworthy computer-controlled vehicles. At Level 4, the car can make all driving decisions on approved roadways — likely starting with highways — and hand control back to the fleshy masses in less predictable areas.

[Image: Toyota]

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29 Comments on “Beige Screen of Death: Toyota Wants People, Not Computers, Crashing Its Cars...”

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    Wouldn’t a severe drop in accidents create a major impact on automakers’ profits?

    • 0 avatar

      I doubt it.

      “I just totaled my car and need a new one” has got to be fairly low on the list of reasons people buy brand new cars. The used car market however…

  • avatar

    I share the skepticism, and not just because driving requires a more nuanced set of skills than the average gadget geek realizes.

    The greatest obstacle is getting the margin of error down to 0.0000000000001%, or whatever the lawyers deem economically viable in a litigious world. Good luck with that. Not even a NASA-sized budget has ever achieved such a thing.

    • 0 avatar

      ^This a thousand times this!^

      Every day I encounter situations in which an autonomous vehicle will likely choke. Right on the street outside my office (which has several buried utilities, including high-pressure natural gas and liquid petroleum pipelines), about once a month on average some random contractor shows up, cones off a lane, and has a flagger waving people around. Somebody explain to me how an autonomous vehicle is going to be able to correctly interpret some flagger’s hand signals.

      Because Google Maps certainly has zero idea of that contractor being present there, so the car will roll up to the first construction truck it sees and park itself, waiting for the vehicle in front to move.

      Until this problem is solved, there is just no way that self-driving cars will ever happen. The lawyers will be all over the automakers 10x as hard as they are now for trans-vaginal mesh surgery failures.

    • 0 avatar

      We’re all (the naysayers especially) assuming that autonomous car operation means all roads, in all conditions, at all times, in all situations from Day One.

      I’ve never seen it in that light. Rather, I see autonomous operation being done only in limited situations (Interstate highway travel immediately comes to mind) for a lot of years before the technology transfers down to an everywhere level.

      And, quite frankly, that’s all the more I see myself needing it for. Drive your car in the usual manner, and as you hit the entrance ramp of the Interstate/non-Interstate limited access expressway, you switch on the autonomous function. Sit back and relax on your otherwise boring 400 mile expressway trip, switching off as you leave the Interstate to finish to your destination.

      This scenario simplifies the entire situation: Traffic running in the same direction, limited on and off, and temporary obstructions could be transmitted to all vehicles very quickly (just use Waze for a while to see the possibilities).

      • 0 avatar

        This. This is what I want. Let the car drive itself on the highway for hundreds of miles. Let me doing the city/slow speed driving that is actually interesting.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    The UA scaremongering might have made Toyota a bit gunshy as well.

  • avatar

    The king is naked, finally. Autonomous driving is just a PR and stock bubble. And I am especially happy that they call twice the bullshit on level 3. How can one ever think that a car goes on its own for half an hour and suddenly asks for human intervention. It’s not a plane flying 30,000 ft, a wrong lane choice is a matter of split second.

    • 0 avatar

      This message brought to you by the union of taxi drivers of America.

      • 0 avatar

        “This message brought to you by the union of taxi drivers of America.”

        You alt right people and your anti-unionism are really getting tiresome.

      • 0 avatar


        Really? Would you trust an autonomous car in a major city driving environment? I don’t as a passenger or a bystander. It’s an outrage that they feel entitled to break from decades of conservative precedent by beta testing this stuff on public roads. The industry has a baseline of overhead that includes massive testing facilities for a reason, new entrants can play ball by funding properly to have access to their own.

        I believe toyota, level 5 autonomy is a paper tiger for now, and the sober manufacturers seem to agree. I appreciate their statement here, they gained nothing by it, they seem to have actually offended the true believers actually, so it’s hard to see it as self serving. It’s telling that we seem to be hearing this same skepticism every time someone in developement speaks up unscripted.

  • avatar

    Good on Toyota for being the voice of reason here. This move is straight out of their playbook. Toyota doesn’t incorporate any technology in their cars that isn’t thoroughly proven already, which is a major reason why they have a reputation for reliability.

    Tesla may be on the bleeding edge of commercially available autonomous technology, but they are using their customers as beta testers, and I fear there will be more accidents to come. I don’t buy Elon Musk’s argument that half-baked autonomous tech is safer than full human control.

  • avatar

    How ’bout they tackle autonomous lawnmowers and snowblowers first and then work their way up to cars?

    • 0 avatar

      I would want an autonomous lawnmower in theory, but the idea of a very sharp blade spinning so quickly in my backyard a couple of feet from my kids makes me skittish. But my personal injury attorney absolutely LOVES the idea.

      • 0 avatar

        I don’t disagree, but we can keep our kids out of the yard for a while while the mower does its thing. Public roads can’t be avoided. So compared with having my kids anywhere near public roads or sidewalks with self-driving cars on the loose, the lawnmower seems like the simpler technology to master, the easier danger to avoid, and therefore a preferable intermediate step.

        Besides, I’ve read loads of comments on this site over the years stating that we can trust autonomous cars to be safer than people operating the cars. So wouldn’t that apply to lawnmowers too?

        I’m not really advocating autonomous lawnmowers, BTW. Just a bit of agitating by analogy.

      • 0 avatar

        Autonomous mowers are sold outside of designated ambulance chaser topias already. A mower has the option to freeze and cease, if it detects movement of anything larger than a flying blade of chopped off grass. A car’s life is not nearly that simple.

    • 0 avatar

      doublechili; Yes, I agree, there can be many other very beneficial applications of the technology.

  • avatar

    Good for Toyota. Not a surprise, really. But, good for Toyota for being realistic.

  • avatar

    This article only tells what I’ve said for years now. The litigation will kill autonomous cars before they are born.

  • avatar

    I’m seeing more difference in spin / marketing than the substance of the claims. Tesla carefully says new cars will have “the hardware”, Alphabet spun off Waymo gaining distance from liability, and TMC said the same things with a spin that downplays the threat to their market. The messages are all massaged to help the parent companies stock though.

  • avatar

    Toyotas future crystal ball is a tad cloudy it seems. A decade plus ago they said electrification was poo poo, hybrids were a bridge, and the real answer was hydrogen fuel cell.

    Now we have Prii with all the charm of a Pontiac Aztek, they broke up with Tesla, no dedicated electric, and their pants are a bit down (yes they have hybrid leadership but Prius sales are in the tank).

    So they say self-driving cars are meh while the rest of the industry races toward the technology.

    Toyota is losing its edge, bit by bit.

    • 0 avatar

      They’re just playing the long game. Which they, as opposed to Tesla, can afford to do. Tesla needs new-new and exciting, since most of their sales are in the form of future promises, not hard product.

      As well, at the engineering level, Tesla is ran much more like a software startup. Getting to beta as quickly as possible, is where it’s at. Since fixing and working on actual, real world, problems, are orders of magnitude cheaper than attempting to model, estimate and anticipate everything before launch. eXtreme Programming, dude!!!! As those not compelled by legal and marketing to tone it down and call it Agile, still prefer to practice.

      It would likely take Toyota at least $100 million, perhaps $billions, to obtain as much real world relevant data, as Tesla can obtain, by simply slamming some unsuspecting schlub into the side of a truck now and then. And scanning the logs leading up to it.

      • 0 avatar

        Good point on the cost difference. What tesla, uber, Google and Apple have shown is that they dont weigh the safety of the general public on the same scale as established manufacturers. Whether that weight is determined by experience with liability, brand value protection, utopian fundamentalism or altruism is irrelevant to me as a road user.

        It’s hard to assign a cause. Employee age and experience, the pep rally tech industry thing, a focus on shorter term financials and plain greed all probably play a role.

        The push to remove the driver and traditional control interfaces from the current test cars makes me genuinely angry. The only upside for such a change is in the pr value that their current test fleets can provide. Our safety is negotiable when it comes to tech r&d, but the idea that all it costs is some short term marketing department gains is obscene.

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