Earlier this week Steve Cropley described his experience of automated driving in a Nissan Leaf on urban roads; Toyota is showcasing its own system on motorways, where the company’s customer research suggests drivers will have a strong desire to let the car do the work.
Today I got to ride shotgun with a Toyota driver and experience the system, which the manufacturer is calling ‘Mobility Teammate Concept’. It’s a moderate approach to autonomous driving, with Toyota’s vision being that driver and systems work together in controlling the vehicle.
The white Lexus GS I’m riding in has extra external sensors installed to provide a 360-degree picture of its surroundings and other vehicles, as well as a host of electronic equipment filling the boot.
Our journey starts in ‘manual driving mode’. From the passenger seat I can see that it says as much on the infotainment screen, which is configured to display a special screen of information related to automated driving. It gives the driver details of the surrounding vehicles and roads, warnings about any potential hazards and a display of the steering and pedal inputs being made by the automated driving system.
We head out towards Tokyo’s Shuto Expressway. Once the Lexus goes through a tollgate and up a slip road to the expressway, the system is satisfied that conditions for permitting autonomous driving are fulfilled.
Our driver gets a ‘ready for automated’ prompt on the infotainment screen to inform him that the system is available if he wishes to deploy it. He presses a button on the lower left steering wheel spoke; there’s a chime and then the screen display changes to ‘starting auto drive mode’.
Our driver calmly lifts his hands off the wheel and feet off the pedals. Other drivers in the vicinity are informed that the car has entered its autonomous mode via two blue lights in the rear screen.
As we cruise up the slip road, the indicator stalk flips on automatically and the car edges smoothly on to the expressway, accelerating slightly to find a space well ahead of another car.
The driving is impeccably smooth, offering plenty of time to watch the steering wheel moving of its own accord. Using its sensors, preloaded map information and GPS, the system can work out where it is both in relation to other traffic and on the road, and use existing technology such as adaptive cruise and lane assist to maintain its position. If it needs to change lane, it will gauge spaces between vehicles and decide when to pull out.
Our driver keeps his hands on his knees, close to the wheel. He can assume control in a similar way to cancelling cruise control: by pressing a pedal. Toyota says its vision of autonomous driving, “aims to retain the driver as the commander of the car, not have him doing other things such as reading the paper or drinking coffee,” in the words of Jun Sato from the manufacturer’s VR tech department.
We sail along at a relaxed 60mph. It all seems very calm, but Sato says that wasn’t the case during the first tests: “It felt strange to begin with, especially in the early stages of development. It was a little scary, to be frank.
“However, from our research of our customers we have discovered there is a demand for autonomous driving, specifically for long-distance driving, for driving on the expressway and in congestion.”