Toyota Is Uneasy about the Handoff between Automated Systems and Drivers ""

By | November 3, 2017

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Toyota has not yet decided whether it will bring a car to market that is capable of automated driving in some situations yet still requires a human driver behind a wheel who can take control if needed—but the automaker, characteristically, is more cautious than many about moving forward with the technology.

Citing safety concerns regarding the handoff between self-driving technology and human driver, Kiyotaka Ise, Toyota’s chief safety technology officer, said the biggest issue with these kinds of systems is that “there is a limbo for several seconds between machine and human” in incidents when a car prompts a human to retake control if it cannot handle operations.

These kinds of systems, defined as Level 3 autonomy by SAE, have divided automakers and tech companies in their approaches to developing cars for the self-driving future. Some, like Audi and General Motors, believe they’re an important milestone; the likes of Ford and Waymo believe the handoff is fraught with so many problems, they’ve elected to eschew such development and pursue fully driverless cars.

So far, Toyota has chosen both paths for research purposes, examining both a Guardian mode that augments human driving and a Chauffeur approach that conducts true driverless operations.

As opposed to Level 2 systems, like Tesla Motors’ Autopilot, in which a human driver is expected to keep his or her eyes and attention on the road while a system conducts most aspects of the driving, Level 3 is characterized by the system’s claiming responsibility for the driving task when it is enabled. Audi has announced that its 2019 A8 sedan will be the first Level 3 production car available in the world, although some markets may not be able to buy A8s with the tech enabled for regulatory reasons.

Members of Toyota’s R&D team said the handoff creates uncertainty about how long the changover from automated to human driving should take after the car requests the human driver to take over. Ise said further that some sort of global consensus on a legal framework for such features would need to take place before Toyota is willing to make Level 3 driving a reality.

Lexus LS+ Concept

Lexus LS+ concept

“We cannot provide [this technology] unless there is clarity on the laws and regulations,” said Ise. “What’s going to happen in terms of responsibility and legality? We are only now starting to see discussions between automakers and governments.”

Toyota is more confident about Level 4 autonomy, a stage at which no human involvement is needed to drive the car (under certain conditions). It has set a goal to create a prototype for a Level 4–capable vehicle by 2020, although it hasn’t detailed how it plans to market the product. Toyota’s current production-ready driver-assist technology includes the optional Lexus Safety System +A package offered on the 2018 Lexus LS. This system essentially fits the Level 2 categorization, as it can handle steering, acceleration, and braking while on the highway. LSS +A requires the driver to keep his or her hands on the wheel and pay attention.

In October at the Tokyo auto show, Lexus also showed the LS+ concept equipped with a feature called Highway Teammate that the company says it intends to produce by 2020. This system will handle tasks such as merging and changing lanes, but Toyota still thinks of this system as Level 2 technology because it will require the driver to stay alert and engaged. Cadillac’s Super Cruise technology is similar in that it monitors the driver’s alertness and eye position to ensure that his or her attention is on the road, although it does not change lanes.

Although Toyota assures us that its researchers are hard at work figuring out the challenges of Level 3 autonomy, it seems like the company could eventually join others moving directly from its current Level 2 system to a Level 4 system. Given the self-driving race has been on for a while, this could put Toyota at a competitive disadvantage, but it’s clear engineers at the company care more about getting things right than they do about being first.

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