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