LAS VEGAS – Toyota is jumping cautiously onto the self-driving car bandwagon. On Monday, the company showcased an “advanced active safety research vehicle” (a tricked-out Lexus LS460), which they are using to test out various autonomous driving features.
The company stresses that, while this research could lead to fully-autonomous vehicles in the future, that’s not really what they’re going for. Instead, Toyota and Lexus want to focus on partially automated technologies that will enhance the skills of the driver.
“In our pursuit of developing more advanced automated technologies, we believe that the driver must be fully engaged,” Mark Templin, the general manager of Toyota’s Lexus division, said in a statement. “For Toyota and Lexus, a driverless car is just part of the story. Our vision is a car equipped with an intelligent, always-attentive co-pilot whose skills contribute to safer driving.”
In other words, Toyota’s and Lexus’ philosophy is that the driver should always be in control of the car. The company hopes to learn, from its research vehicle, how automated technology and human drivers interact with each other.
Toyota’s research vehicle is a Lexus LS460 that’s been modified with multiple sensors, lasers, radars, and cameras for processing the surrounding environment. The car has a 360-degree LIDAR laser on the roof—if you’ve ever seen one of Google’s self-driving Priuses (Prii?), you know what this looks like—that can detect objects around the car up to 70 meters away.
It’s also got three high-definition color cameras for detecting traffic light colors and approaching vehicles, radars on the front and sides of the vehicle for measuring the location and speeds of nearby objects, and GPS antennas on the roof for estimating vehicle angle and orientation. The car also features a distance measurement indicator (on one of the rear wheels) for measuring the vehicle’s travel distance and speed, as well as an inertial measurements unit (on the roof) for measuring the car’s acceleration and angle changes.
All of these measurement units, sensors, and systems combine to let the car observe, process, and respond to its surroundings. The car can not only “see” the objects around it, it can also process them—for example, it can tell whether a traffic light is red or green.
The research vehicle also incorporates Toyota’s and Lexus’ existing safety technology, such as the Lane-Keep Assist feature, which uses sensors to help monitor the car’s position within a well-marked driving lane. Other safety features include Blind Spot Monitor, which uses rear millimeter-wave radar to monitor the driver’s rear blind spot, and Rear Cross Traffic Alert, which alerts drivers when other vehicles are approaching when they are backing up.
The testing grounds
Toyota plans to test its new research vehicle in its Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) proving grounds, which are located in Toyota City, Japan. The 8.6-acre proving grounds are designed to mimic an urban driving environment, complete with roads, traffic signals, simulated real-life driving situations such as other vehicles and pedestrians.
The company will use its tests on the proving grounds as research for its ITS technology, which involves short-range vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. ITS cars are able to “talk,” using near-field communication, to other vehicles as well as their surrounding environment, to help alert drivers to potential dangers and collisions. For example, in an ITS environment, a car might be able to get an alert from a blind intersection that another car is approaching.
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