TOKYO -- Toyota Motor Corp. said it will deploy autonomous driving systems by 2020 and take a big step forward this year by launching technology that allows vehicles to talk to each other, scan blind spots, warn of changing traffic lights and keep a safe distance from other cars.
The company is also test driving more advanced autonomous drive technologies in a modified Lexus GS that can merge on highways and even change lanes by itself.
The goal is to deploy those autonomous drive technologies by around 2020.
Japan’s biggest automaker unveiled the new systems at an Oct. 6 demonstration near the Tokyo waterfront. The vehicle communication system, called ITS Connect, goes on sale in Japan this year, first in a mid-cycle update of the Toyota Crown luxury sedan.
Toyota is introducing the technologies in a push to burnish its safety credentials as automakers seek to differentiate themselves from rivals. The systems are also basic building-block technologies that will underpin future autonomous cars.
“It’s an important step for us,” Toyota Chief Safety Technology Officer Moritaka Yoshida said. “Automatic driving is a technology that will change the concept of the car.”
Many automakers, including Toyota, say they have reached a point of diminishing returns from improvements in passive systems such as stronger body frames and seat belts. Faster gains are expected from technologies that prevent crashes to begin with.
“We've seen these systems trickle down from top-of-line luxury cars into the mainstream market and they have become a focus of marketing campaigns for many automakers,” said John O'Dell, senior editor of Edmunds.com. “No car company that hopes to compete in today's global auto market can ignore these technologies.”
Toyota has already introduced a set of pre-crash automatic braking systems. The Safety Sense C package fits small cars such as the Corolla and uses a laser sensor and camera to gauge obstacles and slow or stop the car before a potential collision. Safety Sense P, meanwhile, is for larger vehicles, such as the Land Cruiser, and adds pedestrian detection.
Toyota is among several automakers, including Nissan Motor Co. and General Motors, now setting a 2020 horizon for the deployment of more advanced self-driving technologies.
Initial demand is expected to be slow, however. Global sales of self-driving or driverless cars won’t exceed 2 million units a year until 2029, predicts IHS Automotive.
But Toyota’s next step is deploying vehicle-to-infrastructure and vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems in its cars. Collectively known as intelligent transportation systems, or ITS, these technologies are still in their infancy but are viewed as key components of autonomous cars. For example, they allow vehicles to talk to ITS sensors at intersections, which warn of pedestrians and vehicles hidden by blind spots.
And by having one car’s computers share information such as acceleration and deceleration data with other vehicles, these systems allow for more efficient car tracking and, potentially, convoys of cars traveling at the same speed.
Toyota said last month it will make an ITS safety package standard on three models in Japan by the end of this year. The first is the refreshed Crown, which went on sale Oct. 1.
Called ITS Connect, the system picks up information that can’t be gathered by onboard sensors, Toyota said. It helps with collision avoidance, traffic light and emergency vehicle alerts, and adaptive cruise control. It also aids in blind spot detection.
O’Dell called vehicle-to-vehicle communication an “important step in achieving fully autonomous capability” and said Toyota has been deeply involved in developing not only the hardware but the software that enables the systems.
According to Toyota, its rollout makes it the first carmaker to market a safety function tied to ITS over a dedicated public frequency. The system uses Japan’s standardized ITS frequency of 760 MHz to beam signals back and forth from the vehicle.
Chicken and egg
The vehicle-to-vehicle communication improves safety a couple ways. The first is by alerting the driver, when the brake pedal is released, that an oncoming car or pedestrian is coming. It also warns the driver if the car approaches a red light without slowing down and helps drivers time intersection stops by counting down the time until the light changes.
But there’s one crucial hitch: These technologies only work along stretches of roads where the proper ITS equipment has been installed.
That creates a chicken-and-egg problem. The onboard technology won’t be effective unless the infrastructure expands. But governments are unlikely to invest heavily in infrastructure unless more cars are equipped with the technology to interact with it.
“It requires all parties to work hand-in-hand,” Yoshida said. “But someone has to start.”
In all of Japan, for instance, there are only 20 intersections equipped with ITS equipment. The government plans to add only 50 more by the end of March, 2016.
Despite the very limited reach, Crown customers who want to equip their cars with the technology must splash out an extra 27,000 yen ($224.70) for the ITS setup.
Intersections are an ideal starting point for deploying ITS systems because 40 percent of Japan’s traffic accidents occur at such crossroads, Toyota says.
At locations where the equipment is installed in Japan, the system usually consists of a radar sensor and transmitter-receiver box sitting high on a roadside utility pole.
The hardware isn’t cheap. It can cost as much as a traditional traffic light system.
Toyota’s ITS Connect also encompasses vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems.
This feature improves adaptive cruise control by using radar to provide almost instantaneous reaction the car ahead. Called Communicating Radar Cruise Control, the system keeps a steady distance between cars without delayed braking or acceleration.
Another function alerts the driver when an emergency vehicle, such as an ambulance or fire engine. It not only gives an approximate location of the vehicle and distance to the vehicle, it also tells the driver which way the emergency crew is headed.
But again, these systems work only with vehicles equipped to interact with the Toyota’s.
Toyota will deploy these technologies first in Japan, where the government and automotive industry have agreed on standardization of such items as the dedicated wireless bandwidth. A U.S. introduction date will depend on similar moves by U.S. regulators and carmakers, Toyota has said.
But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has backed vehicle-to-vehicle systems as the way forward in the U.S., and Toyota wants to be an early adopter.
With an eye further down the road, Toyota is already testing advanced autonomous drive technologies on Japanese highways. The program, Highway Teammate, uses a modified Lexus GS that can merge and exit highways, maintain and change lanes and keep a constant distance from other vehicles on the road, all without driver input, Toyota said.
The technology relies on highly accurate road mapping and external sensors. By constantly monitoring such input, the car automatically moves the steering wheel and operates the accelerator and brakes to drive the car.
Toyota said it aims to launch products based on Highway Teammate around 2020.