Toyota aims to assist, not replace, drivers
DETROIT — Toyota Motor Corp. is in no hurry to join the auto industry’s stampede to launch fleet tests of Google-style self-driving taxis.
The company’s top priority is to help motorists drive safely, rather than replace them, a senior Toyota executive said earlier this month.
“A completely autonomous car is not what we’re looking for,” said Seigo Kuzumaki, Toyota’s assistant chief safety technology officer, during a presentation here to Automotive News Europe sister publication Automotive News. “Our priority is to reduce the number of accidents.”
Kuzumaki’s comments come as several companies are mounting fleet tests of self-driving vehicles on public roads.
Google was first with a ride-hailing service at its corporate headquarters in Mountain View, California. Delphi Automotive has announced plans to launch fleet tests of self-driving taxis in Singapore, and Uber is launching a test fleet of self-driving Volvo taxis in Pittsburgh this year.
But Kuzumaki cautions that such vehicles must operate in restricted areas under ideal conditions. By contrast, Toyota has prioritized so-called Level 3 technology, in which a vehicle can accelerate, brake and steer itself for stretches on the highway.
Toyota will introduce this system, dubbed Highway Teammate, in Japan in 2020, Kuzumaki said.
The automaker is developing a similar system, called Urban Teammate, for use on city streets, Kuzumaki said. But he did not disclose the system’s launch date.
Although Highway Teammate is baked into Toyota’s product plans, the company still wrestles with a problem that has bedeviled the industry: how to safely return control from the computer to the motorist.
Toyota has tried audible warnings, lights and vibrating seats.
“It is true that the handover is a very difficult issue,” Kuzumaki said. “The biggest issue is the communication between the system and the human driver. … We are working on it right now.”
This issue has divided the auto industry into two camps. At one extreme is Google, which eliminated the steering wheel, brake pedals and accelerator. If the vehicle malfunctions, it is programmed to pull over to the roadside.
Delphi is taking a similar approach. Initially, each of its six self-driving taxis will have a trained driver in the vehicle to keep an eye on things. If all goes well, Delphi will eliminate its human drivers in 2019.
By contrast, Toyota wants to keep human motorists in the driver’s seat. Said Kuzumaki: “The fun-to-drive concept is very important to Toyota.”