By on September 20, 2018

Despite being one of the largest manufacturing giants currently in existence, Toyota is trailing in the autonomous technology war currently raging among carmakers. But it would unfair to say that the Japanese brand is losing. While General Motors appears to lead the rest of the established automotive firms, it’s not perfectly clear how big a gap it made for itself. Meanwhile, Toyota spent the last few years taking a more cautious approach, without ever ignoring the possibility of an autonomous future.

In 2015, the automaker decided to get serious, saying it would invest billions of dollars into the Toyota Research Institute. The goal? To advance robotics and artificial intelligence to a level where it could test an autonomous vehicle by 2020. But Toyota remains skeptical of the rest of the industry’s progress on self-driving cars.

“I need to make it perfectly clear, it’s a wonderful, wonderful goal,” Gill Pratt, the CEO of the Toyota Research Institute said at CES 2017. “But none of us in the automobile or IT industries are close to achieving true Level 5 autonomy, we are not even close.” 

Toyota thinks that while several manufacturers appear to be on the cusp of Level 4 self-driving capability, total autonomy remains a distant speck on the horizon.

The company currently has a number of Lexus-based vehicles it uses to test new hardware and software. By all accounts, those units are making a lot of headway in a short period of time, but aren’t on par with the best the rest of the industry. It also created the e-Palette concept this year — an autonomous, modular box that Toyota wants to build by 2020.

e-Palette Concept

In June, Toyota invested $1 billion in Grab Holdings Inc., a ride-sharing firm from Southeast Asia. The following month the company said it was launching a $500 million partnership with Uber Technologies for the joint creation of driverless vehicles.

However, despite getting serious about a prospective future that involves rampant self-driving, Toyota still doesn’t seem all that certain that’s the timeline we’re actually going to be living in.

“Taking me from Cambridge to Logan Airport with no driver in any Boston weather or traffic condition — that might not be in my lifetime,” Toyota’s vice president of automated research John Leonard told Bloomberg in a recent interview.

The Massachusetts-based and MIT-backed Research Institute has made more than enough progress to make the automaker a serious contender in the field of autonomy, especially among established automakers. But Toyota still isn’t ready to commit to anything.

From Bloomberg:

Toyota’s self-driving vision isn’t really about getting rid of drivers. Rather, it’s about using autonomous and related technologies to make cars safer and more user-friendly, chockablock with features that help people stay productive while they remain, for the most part, behind the wheel. [President Akio] Toyoda, who competes regularly in road races and signs off on future vehicle designs only after personally testing them on a track, is betting that consumers’ love affair with the automobile is far from over.

The company certainly has the money to pursue whatever future it believes in—$50 billion in cash as of June 30, more than twice as much as GM. But autonomous driving technology is a distinctly American invention, and Toyota has long been known less as an innovator than as a superb manufacturer that figures out rivals’ inventions and does them better. That approach might not be tenable in the face of a cultural shift that Toyota executives say could be as dramatic as the one it faced in the 1930s, when it went from making weaving looms to building cars. “There’s a business need for us to become more like IT companies before the IT companies become more like us,” says Pratt. “The company is very strong now, so now is the time for us to make sure we are the ones who actually figure out all the cool stuff.”

Toyota does appear to have the most patents relating to autonomous technology of any of the established automakers. Still, how many of them qualify as “the cool stuff” is debatable.

Its current plan for the autonomous revolution takes a two-pronged approach. Vehicles like the e-Palette will mill around, running errands for people and companies, resulting in a lessened need to leave the house, while passenger vehicles will continue using humans. Toyota knows that getting a vehicle to drive itself on every road and in every type of weather is wildly ambitious, so its self-driving hardware aims to augment the abilities of living, breathing motorists.

Toyota’s Guardian system will combine machine learning and autonomous sensors with traditionally operated controls and a human pilot. The end result is a vehicle driven by a person with the ability to see further, clearer, and in all directions simultaneously. It lets you do the majority of the work and steps in only when necessary.

A video produced last year by the Research Institute showed Ryan Eustice, TRI’s senior vice president for automated driving, behind the wheel of a Guardian-equipped car on a closed track. In the demo, Eustice allows the vehicle to drift as he pretends to fall asleep. A dashboard camera notices that his head has slumped and his eyes are closing. The system quickly takes control and places the car back in its lane, asking Eustice to wake up and resume control of the vehicle. Toyota says Guardian will also do thinks like preventing drivers from entering a corner to fast, or avoiding obstacles they failed to see.

“An order-of-magnitude reduction in fatalities should be technically possible,” Leonard said. “Imagine if you had the most vigilant and capably trained driver in the world that could take over in a situation where a teenager took a curve too fast. Ten years from now, I dream Toyota gets letters from car owners saying, ‘My teenager was driving and did something stupid, and Guardian intervened. Thank you.'”

While not the most groundbreaking vision of the future, it may be more realistic than what other automakers promise. There are still liability concerns associated with who, exactly, is at fault when autonomous systems fail. By keeping the onus on the driver, Toyota doesn’t have to worry quite as seriously about lawsuits as GM might with its Cruise AV — which has no steering wheel or pedals.

However, it does allow Toyota to deploy connected services that will sometimes encourage drivers to take their eyes of the road to interact more regularly with a vehicle’s infotainment system. Like GM, Toyota knows that there is a lot of money in data. But the Japanese brand hasn’t gone app crazy or partnered with nearly as many retailers. Most of its focus has been on ride-sharing and commercial fleets thus far. It’s still taking a more cautious, conservative approach with new technologies.

[Images: Toyota]

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22 Comments on “Toyota’s Self-driving Car Plan Still Incorporates the Driver, Calls Bullshit on Level 5 Autonomy...”

  • avatar

    It’s good to see a manufacturer being realistic with their ideas/plans surrounding autonomy, but isn’t this typical Toyota? Not wanting to step too far outside the established norms, not being too inventive and ground breaking, and ultimately playing it safe with every bet it makes?

    Their mass market consumer vehicle fleet paints that picture very well to me.

    • 0 avatar

      Ya, they waited years before coming up with hybrids well past every other effort. Wait a minute…

      • 0 avatar

        This is just one example, but GM already had a full electric car at the time which was designed from the ground up, while Toyota based their model on an existing car and used a hybrid instead of full electric, etc etc. Sounds like playing safe to me. Along with all the other countless times of Toyota using trusted tech like avoiding turbocharging in most of their cars recently.

        • 0 avatar

          Full electrics have been around for a century. They never worked for widespread use. And won’t. The Prius did/does. There’s nothing innovative about building an antigravity machine that doesn’t work. Even Musk’s favorite SciFi author could do that.

      • 0 avatar

        The Prius was hardly ground breaking in any other sense that it was the first hybrid to actually gain significant traction. Let’s not forget that Honda had the Insight in development before the Prius but drug their feet in releasing it. Also, the GM EV1 as mentioned above.

        What I was specifically referring to is in this modern era, their Tundra has only had light applications of lipstick since 2007. The Tacoma (while a good truck overall) is nowhere near “top of the pack” as far as being inventive goes. While I commend it for being this way, the Camry is the only midsized sedan in the entry level consumer market to NOT use a turbo 4 and a CVT. The Corolla… well it’s a Corolla and not really needing to be inventive. The Highlander is basically the only Toyota branded offering that is making strides to keep current- updating it’s engine in 2016 as well as switching to an 8 speed auto in the same year.

    • 0 avatar

      @CoastieLenn – “ultimately playing it safe with every bet it makes?”

      It’s refreshing to read a manufacturer being blunt and candid about autonomous driving, but there’s more here than meets the eye. Don’t forget Toyota made an aggressive bet on Hydrogen Fuel Cells (Murai) which was really a FUD campaign against EVs. Toyota wanted to protect Prius sales and was also behind in EV development.

      The article’s opening sentence is “Despite being one of the largest manufacturing giants currently in existence, Toyota is trailing in the autonomous technology war currently raging among carmakers.”

      Once Toyota catches up, will they still stand firm and call BS on level 5 autonomy?

    • 0 avatar

      While not Toyota centric, Japan went through their Robot-AI-hype era a quarter century ago. Before and around when Asimo was born. They’re still plugging away at it, Asimo is growing up, but he is in no way ready to get a license yet. For all the at-the-time hype, he’s, in fact, a bit of a slow learner, compared to meatsacks of similar age (In Japan, all two of them…)

      Just as here and now, then and there the hype coincided with the peak of an unsustainable credit boom. Which, as always and per textbook, gives economic actors the illusion that more resources are available to complete projects with, that what is really true. So they waste them on pointless malinvestment. Some of which may yield the occasional interesting insight (look ma, Asimo can do stairs now… At age 12… And as long as the stair is properly prepared!), but which ultimately consumes resources at a rate greater than it produces them. Resources which could otherwise have been spent on something productive. Like building boring, old housing units around Mountain View and Cambridge, so bright engineers could focus on something worthy of their intelligence, rather than wasting braincycles on something so trivial, and long since solved, as obtaining a roof over their heads….

  • avatar

    Well we shall see when it is presented with a stationary fire truck.

  • avatar

    I’ve been callling bs on Level 5 for some time now. With the ridiculously steep hills and narrow streets around here coupled with the prestigious snowfall, there’s no way it’ll work. Those robot cars would just stop in place and jam up the entire city. Level 5 is nerd wet dream for any locale that isn’t flat and 75 with sunshine every day.

    • 0 avatar

      I think there is a deeper philosophical question – how do you program morality – and some key people are now starting to ask these questions.

      Drivers are faced with no-win situations every day where the options go from bad to really bad. So do you want a computer deciding whether you are gravely injured or not, or even possibly killed, because a calculating formula put your life value under another option which, on paper would have even worse consequences.

      Not to dismiss your points of terrain, weather, at least some degree of proper road maintenance (ha!) like clear paint lines in the road (let me follow this line right into a concrete barrier), readable signage and managing sudden changes in traffic patterns.

      Drove through some construction on I-90 in Idaho this last weekend that was so poorly laid out that even broad daylight there is a, “what the Hell am I supposed to do,” moment.

      • 0 avatar

        @AP: Didn’t Mercedes recently decide that it was programming to prioritize the survival of it’s driver over others in its autonomous cars? I think that is the right way to go. Can you imagine anyone wanting to own an AI car or even get in one if they knew it could decide on its own that they were expendable?

      • 0 avatar

        For genuine, all conditions, Level 5 autonomy, the Toyota driving your kids to school in Caracas, will occasionally have to make the determination that the pedestrian closing in on the car, is there to kidnap the children it carries in it’s bosom. Hence decide run him over, in order to escape….. Ditto respond appropriately to being engaged in running gun battles through downtown Manhattan……

        Let’s see police trading in their cruisers for “Level 5” versions, and the Presidential limo do the same, and perhaps the Military it’s MRAPs, before “calling BS” on Pratt’s caution.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    ““Taking me from Cambridge to Logan Airport with no driver in any Boston weather or traffic condition — that might not be in my lifetime,” Toyota’s vice president of automated research John Leonard told Bloomberg in a recent interview.”

    He’s the only sane one with the courage to tell The Truth About Autonomous Cars.

    However, I really believe the limiting factor in AVs is assignment of liability, not development of better technology.

    • 0 avatar

      @SCE, so a TTAAC is now needed?!!

      I absolutely agree with your premise of “who is willing to underwrite the liability”. While I think Level 5 is years away (and who knows if that is adequate), the amount of insurance underwriters will be the equivalent of a kiddie pool.

      I have a bit of experience in that regard, trying to find companies that would underwrite E&O (Errors and Ommissions) insurance for my company, as one of our workflows was transferring analog recorded masters of famous artists to a digital file. The terror of transferring this type of material is that no matter what steps we took to mitigate failure (“baking”, modifications to playback machines, etc.), even Lloyds of London would have no part of it.

      The premiums were stratospheric – we had to pass the cost along to the client – there is no way in heck that traditional insurers will touch it.

      • 0 avatar

        Civicjohn, did you have any historical data on failure rates, or was the sample size too small / non-existent for you to be able to say, “We’ve done this 200 times and had one destructive failure, so ..”?

        • 0 avatar

          @PeriSoft, knock on wood, but in 16 years we never had an epic fail, hundreds of items, but I think our success rate was due in no small part that there were simply some jobs we would not take. Wire recordings, paper-based tape, we made an educated business decision based on historical rates of success.

          In other words, we hedged our bets. The insurance rates still climbed 15-25% annually. There are so many more variables with autonomous cars, here in the land of the lawyers.

          • 0 avatar

            @civicjohn, cool! I really hate doing things where a failure is both intrinsically impossible to protect against and incalculably costly (it’s the same mindset that makes me uneasy that I can’t *fully* test the fire suppression system in my racecar).

            With autonomous cars you can at least put some kind of rational upper bound on the potential cost; there have historically been cases where screwups have killed people, so you have some idea what those screwups cost. They might be more costly business-wise with faSDVs but all things being equal they won’t be more costly legally.

            That said, I still think the main problem is that it’s going to be decades before we even get to the point where these issues are a potential problem. The challenge of actual level five is vastly greater than many people are willing to acknowledge – at least, people in the press and executive level of companies spending money on it. Everyone I talk to in the industry is perfectly happy putting a three-decade minimum on practical general-purpose faSDV development.

            It’s refreshing to see Toyota focusing on stuff we can do in the more immediate future to make cars safer rather than blathering unproductively about how safe things WILL be when we get this magic tech done, real soon now.

  • avatar

    AVs…pfffttt…who cares? That’s not very forward-thinking, not even at “Level 5”. It’s almost 2020 fer cryin’ out loud. I want a FLYING AV just like George Jetson. Until then i’ll just hold onto my ‘98 Suzuki Esteem.

  • avatar

    By the time they perfect Level 5, Level 6 will be ready to come to market, I’m just gonna wait.

  • avatar

    I just want to know how well it will do when I come out to the car after a long day at the office and we received 6 inches of snow while it was parked. Will it have defrosters to clear all the sensors and how long will it take, or do I have to clear them myself and how well do the need to be cleaned.

    At least I would still be able to drive it myself.

    When they can operate like the GPS snow plows in Alaska at an affordable price we will be making some progress.

  • avatar

    I guess you’re just being sarcastic, but you do realise that ‘level 5’ is the end game – as in, the car can do everything, without any human intervention.

    What would level 6 even be, when a human driver is already not needed at level 5?

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