Vir­tual chauf­feur

Lexus and Toy­ota are striv­ing for the per­fect pas­sen­ger’s car


IT’S ap­proach­ing peak hour in Tokyo, one of the busiest ci­ties in the world.

There are five of us in the car and we’re all pas­sen­gers, in­clud­ing the Lexus em­ployee be­hind the wheel.

At the press of a but­ton on the steer­ing wheel our Lexus limou­sine takes over the driv­ing du­ties.

The only clues that the ma­chine is in con­trol is a dis­play on the cen­tre con­sole that says we’ve en­tered au­to­mated mode — and the fact that the man in the driver’s seat has taken his hands off the wheel.

For the next four min­utes the car will use cam­eras, radar and lidar to nav­i­gate its way onto and off one of Tokyo’s busiest free­ways, chang­ing lanes sev­eral times along the way.

Lidar is the tech­nol­ogy po­lice use to book you. It bounces a laser beam off ob­jects to work out dis­tances and speeds. In this case its job is to mea­sure the dis­tance and clos­ing speed of the cars in the ad­ja­cent lane and work out a safe time to merge.

The nav­i­ga­tion part of the puz­zle isn’t done by satel­lite po­si­tion­ing be­cause that isn’t ac­cu­rate enough for the task at hand. Lexus has used a fleet of ve­hi­cles equipped with a com­bi­na­tion of small sen­sors, cam­eras and GPS units to au­to­mat­i­cally gen­er­ate de­tailed 3D maps of the roads we’re trav­el­ling on.

The read­out on the cen­tre screen shows ex­actly what the car is go­ing to do, as well as dis­play­ing ghost images of other cars it has de­tected in front of and be­hind our car.

The read­out tells us when the car will merge and whether it will ac­cel­er­ate or brake sightly when it finds its place in the stream of traf­fic. It also shows whether it will need to ac­cel­er­ate to keep a safe dis­tance from the car be­hind or brake to main­tain the gap to the car in front.

In one cor­ner of the dis­play it shows a brake pedal, ac­cel­er­a­tor and steer­ing wheel, with any throt­tle, brake or steer­ing in­puts high­lighted in blue.

Even­tu­ally we nav­i­gate our way on to the free­way, change lanes back and forth, take exit roads and turn cor­ners, all with­out any hu­man in­ter­ven­tion. Then once we are off the free­way, the ma­chine tells our driver to take over the wheel again.

Al­though it can slow and speed up on the high­way, it can’t bring the ve­hi­cle to a com­plete stop, al­though other ex­ist­ing tech­nol­ogy, in­clud­ing au­to­mated city brak­ing, would pre­sum­ably take over.

Lexus’s par­ent com­pany Toy­ota is aim­ing to bring prod­ucts to mar­ket that will al­low for driver­less trans­port by 2020. It’s not the only one work­ing on the tech­nol­ogy, and there is an ar­gu­ment that it is late to the party.

Sil­i­con Val­ley’s Tesla elec­tric ve­hi­cle al­ready has au­topi­lot func­tions and au­to­mated lane chang­ing, while sev­eral of Lexus’s lux­ury ri­vals can al­ready take free­way bends at speed.

Toy­ota’s gen­eral man­ager of its fu­ture project divi­sion, Ken Koibuchi, won’t be drawn on whether Toy­ota is trail­ing its ri­vals. But he says all sys­tems are not the same.

“There are very many types of tech­nol­ogy in this field … Our sys­tem is very ac­cu­rate com­pared to other sys­tems. So maybe other sys­tems that re­lease very quickly are not as safe as our sys­tem,” he says.

Toy­ota is also work­ing with the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment to de­velop in­ter­sec­tions that can “talk” to cars in an at­tempt to re­duce the num­ber of pedes­tri­ans killed on its roads.

In a trial pro­gram, lo­cal author­i­ties have set up com­mu­ni­ca­tion tow­ers at 20 in­ter­sec­tions in Aichi and Tokyo pre­fec­tures to warn driv­ers if they are turn­ing off a main road into a side street with a pedes­trian cross­ing. That num­ber will ex­pand to 50 by March next year, with the roll­out pro­gram fo­cus­ing on known black spots.

Ac­ci­dent statis­tics in Ja­pan show that 45 per cent of ac­ci­dents oc­cur near in­ter­sec­tions. Ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing the el­derly are par­tic­u­larly com­mon.

The tech­nol­ogy also warns a driver turn­ing across an in­ter­sec­tion if there is an on­com­ing car ob­scured by other traf­fic.

If the driver lifts their foot off the brake and is go­ing to be on a col­li­sion course with an­other car, a warn­ing sig­nal will ap­pear in the in­stru­ment panel.

The tech­nol­ogy can also be adapted to stop driv­ers from in­ad­ver­tently run­ning a red light.

The tech­nol­ogy will be rolled out across the rest of the world as lo­cal reg­u­la­tions al­low.

While Toy­ota is the ini­tial part­ner, the car-to-in­fras­truc­ture tech­nol­ogy will be avail­able to other car­mak­ers.

No grip: Lexus and Toy­ota showed off its driver­less tech­nol­ogy af­ter the 2015 Tokyo mo­tor show

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