TOKYO -- Akio Toyoda, an amateur race-car driver and big-time car buff, used to say until recently that he wouldn’t be a true believer in autonomous vehicles until a self-driving car could beat him in a race around Germany’s famed Nurburgring circuit.
It’s a track the Toyota Motor Corp. CEO has run many times, including behind the wheel of a Lexus LFA during the course’s famed 24-hour endurance race.
But he recently changed his tune.
The reversal came after his company became a top sponsor of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
He initially envisioned specially equipped handicapped cars as ferrying the Paralympians to and from events -- the kind, perhaps, retrofitted with ramps and special seats.
But some athletes told him they wanted to drive their own cars, not be chauffeured in specially modified ones.
“I was told by the athletes they want to drive cool cars, not just cars designed for handicapped people,” Toyoda said.
He said that made him realize that self-driving vehicles could “convey the fun of driving to a wider spectrum of people … than what I originally imagined.”
Now Toyota aims to have semiautonomous vehicles on the market by 2020. Those cars would be able to merge onto highways, change lanes, pass cars and navigate to a destination by themselves.
And that’s just for starters. Last week, Toyota announced plans to invest $1 billion into developing artificial intelligence technologies that will take autonomous driving even further.
One goal is great convenience. A bigger one is improved safety.
But Toyoda also has bigger ambitions. He wants autonomous driving to open the door to whole groups of people who were previously locked out -- from the handicapped to the elderly.
Says Toyoda: “At Toyota, we do not pursue innovation simply because we can. We pursue it because we should.”