CES 2013: Toyota's careful approach to autonomous cars
Self-driving technology is here, but are drivers really ready to let go of the wheel?
Autonomous cars are one of the big trends and talking points at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show. The day before the giant trade show started in Las Vegas, Audi announced that it had become the first automaker to obtain a license from Nevada to test autonomous cars on the state’s roads. And Lexus unveiled its self-driving research vehicle, a modified LS, at the show.
MSN Autos sat down with Jim Pisz, Toyota’s corporate manager for North American Business Strategy, at CES to find out more about the automaker’s autonomous-vehicle plans and how self-driving cars will affect the future of driving, car design and government regulation.
MSN Autos: With features such as Lane Keep Assist and the Pre-Collision System, Toyota has been at the forefront of driver-assist technology. Does the company view autonomous driving as an extension of these?
Jim Pisz: If you look at our first Pre-Collision System, we put it on Lexus LS in 2004. That system had just a millimeter-wave radar sensor. The vehicle that we’re showing here at CES, the new LS 460, has the advance Pre-Collision System and still has the millimeter-wave radar. But then we’ve added stereo cameras and projected infrared to make the system a lot better. So there is a more rapid evolution to the technology to allow that to happen, and the new LS has the capability to see further and it can understand more. So it represents a step into the automated-driving world.
MSN Autos: Will that evolution quickly lead to fully autonomous cars?
Pisz: Our philosophy is to provide a layered approach to technology. We’re incrementally building the building blocks and we’re working toward building products that consumers can get to know, become educated on and then trust. I think trust is the elusive element. I don’t mean trust in our brand or our product, but trust in the ability that the technology will accomplish.
And I think we have to be careful how quickly we move on [autonomous driving] because the approach that we take will have a broader effect. We have a whole group of Ph.D.s studying the effects of the autonomous car. Once you take your hands off the wheel and your feet off the pedals, there’s a different dynamic. Having driven autonomous vehicles, it’s a joyful feeling, but it’s a scary feeling at the same time. So how does that change the dynamics of driving? The question is how will the average person accept this technology?
MSN Autos: Do you think the average driver will have a difficult time adopting self-driving cars?
Pisz: I think that the rate of adoption will escalate. I think it has to. There’s too many benefits of autonomous driving for just about every age segment there is. When you think about things like the average amount of time a driver spends in the vehicle, there’s a productivity advantage that can’t be ignored. That’s not to say we’re close to that right now.
MSN Autos: How will autonomous driving change car design?
Pisz: If we had an autonomous future with cars that didn’t crash, which is the objective, think about what is latent in the car right now: the weight of the vehicle, safety systems. If cars didn’t crash, would we need all that, which adds to the price of the vehicle? If we could reduce the weight of the vehicle, what impact would that have on our national energy policy?
MSN Autos: Audi said at its CES press conference that we’ll have autonomous vehicles by the end of the decade. Do you agree with that?
Pisz: I think we will see autonomous vehicles in this decade. Our philosophy is that autonomous is not driverless. We will always have a driver behind the wheel. The vehicle can’t drive itself without any human input. Even in the video we produced, you’ll see the driver puts it into driverless mode, but it will steer and brake itself.
MSN Autos: What are Toyota’s autonomous-driving plans?
Pisz: There’s so many interesting mitigation points that make you pause and think carefully about how to pursue it. We think that the idea of focusing on safety and taking a layered, step-by-step approach is the best way to bring this technology to life.
MSN Autos: What do you see as the government’s role with autonomous vehicles?
Pisz: We have a number of members of Congress coming by the booth because they’re trying to learn about the technology. How far behind one autonomous vehicle should another autonomous vehicle be? Should it be 6 inches, should it be a foot, a car length? There’s no answer because there’s so many unprecedented questions that have to be solved.
Edited from a longer interview.
Detroit is watching until consumers embrace or refuse the technology and then force poorly designed and overpriced vehicles that imitate the real benchmark companies. For some reason, Honda's invention of variable valve timing comes to mind. Now, most manufacturers, once the technology proved itself, came up with their own knock of versions of the technology once the copyrights and patents expired.
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