The prospect of a world where automobiles drive themselves may seem like science fiction, and in the minds of some in politicians and the industry as a whole, it’s a logical goal to strive for. However is the world truly ready for fully autonomous vehicles? If statements from Toyota reps are to be believed, then the answer is hazier then perhaps many expected.
Toyota Sheds New Light On AV Plans, Clarifies Details
Toyota’s remarks came during a day of presentations both at the Toyota Research and Development Center outside Ann Arbor and the nearby American Center for Mobility (ACM.) While the company revealed that it’s continuing its efforts into AV planning and creation, it’s also doing so carefully, with perhaps some ingrained skepticism added into the mix as well.
In the current automotive landscape, the levels of vehicle autonomy are split into five distinct levels with each one decreasing the amount of human involvement and adding more responsibilities to the vehicle’s computer systems. Level 5 is currently seen as the benchmark for many automakers with this level allowing for full autonomous driving beyond a pre-determined geofence but for now Toyota and many others employ Level 2 systems. In Toyota’s case, these systems are found in the 2022 Lexus LS and the Toyota Mirai and like GM’s Super Cruise feature, they allow drivers to have hands-free motoring on freeways complete with automated lane changes. However, they also keep an eye on the driver, with sensors in the cabin disengaging when it senses the driver is not paying full attention to the road.
That said, in perhaps a sheer bit of irony, it’s the very humans these systems are supposed to assist that may be playing a role in delaying the broader plans for autonomous cars. Gill Pratt Toyota’s Chief Scientist and the CEO of the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) revealed that humans are very good at making complex decisions while behind the wheel of a vehicle with predictions and preparing for possible outcomes being key factors in this process. In contrast autonomous vehicles are still learning how to replicate these processes. As a result, Pratt confirmed that “no one really knows” when these vehicles are ready for full-on production.
Safety At The Forefront Of Toyota’s Plans
When fully autonomous vehicles are eventually ready for full-scale production, Toyota revealed that safety and the testing process will be integral pillars in creating systems and vehicles that are ready for public use with the company stating that it extensively tests everything it creates before it unleashes it onto the general public in production vehicles.
In addition to talking about the future, Toyota was also willing to demonstrate some of the current technologies that are now entering full-scale production. For example, the 2023 Toyota Tundra is equipped with a state of the art Trailer Pre-Collision system. This suite of sensors allows the truck to work with compatible trailer brakes and it all blends together to help create a smoother stopping experience with the brakes on the truck and the trailer. It appears that brake temperature does play a role in the effectiveness of the system with some of the company’s test runs occasionally ending with the truck lightly tapping the ACM provided target versus stopping just short of it like intended.
A more ambitious system that Toyota is currently working on is the “hitchless towing” system. As the name implies, the system allows a vehicle to tow another vehicle without the need for a formal hitch and instead uses specially calibrated systems to have the second car follow the first vehicle seamlessly move for move. The idea came from an employee within TRI and the company liked it so much that it moved it to a high priority project. Toyota claims that the system could eventually be applied to traditional trailers, but for now chose to demonstrate the system on a pair of outfitted Sienna minivans with the two following each other at safe distance and with human operators behind the wheel to jump in just in case something went wrong.
Hydrogen To Still Play Broad Role
In addition to mobility technology, Toyota also confirmed that it is still exploring and researching hydrogen fuel cells. While the lack of fueling stations outside of California was an initial obstacle, the company partnered with BayoTech to build a fueling station at ACM to help further enhance their hydrogen research. The proposed fueling station is still under construction, but Toyota revealed that it will be completed in the near future. In the meantime, the company also showed off a fuel cell generator which replaces a traditional diesel generator and not only provides quieter operation, but also clean water as a byproduct.
Carl Malek has been an automotive journalist for over 10 years. First starting out as a freelance photographer before making the transition to writing during college, his work has appeared on numerous automotive forums as well as websites such as Autoshopper.com.
Carl is also a big fan of British vehicles with the bulk of his devotion going to the Morgan Motor Company as well as offerings from Lotus, MG, and Caterham. When he is not writing about automobiles, Carl enjoys spending time with his family and friends in the Metro Detroit area, as well as spending time with his adorable pets.