The Odaiba waterfront area of Tokyo, where many of the Olympic venues will be, is an ideal environment for autonomous demonstrations. Unlike the rest of Tokyo, which is veined by narrow, winding roads, punctuated be a confusing maze of intersections and stoplights, the Odaiba area sits on reclaimed land with wide, straight boulevards and light traffic.
As a top global sponsor of the Olympics and the country's flagship automaker, Toyota sees the Tokyo games as a turning point — particularly in public awareness. Although Toyota has not garnered the attention of other automakers and suppliers, it is pursuing a goal of achieving autonomous driving on city streets by the early 2020s.
Of Japan's big three automakers, Nissan Motor Co. has been the most bullish publicly, promising years ago that it would deliver automated navigation of city intersections around 2020. Honda Motor Co. announced in early June it intends to put Level 4 self-driving cars on city streets by 2025.
Toyota first outlined its goal for introducing Level 4 autonomous city driving at a June 26 LS preview event in Japan.
Executives declared that Toyota's first priority will be safety, followed by convenience. The strategy is underscored by the very language they use to describe Toyota's technology.
Toyota demurs from calling it "autonomous" because that word may instill a false confidence among drivers, Koibuchi said. Instead, Toyota will use the term "automated," deferring to the more measured language recommended by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Toyota calls its vision the "Mobility Teammate Concept," evoking the idea that car and driver will be partners in autonomous driving, and that humans should dictate when they hand off control.
But there is still some technical legwork left before automakers can clear the safety hurdles and achieve truly hands-off, eyes-off self driving, Koibuchi said.
For starters, lidar sensors, not currently used in any Toyota production vehicles, will have to be a part of the picture, Koibuchi said. Costs are dropping rapidly for the high-tech laser scanners, meaning deployment will come in the "near future," he added.
High-definition mapping is also a must-have.
The Japanese government is spearheading an industrywide effort to map the country's roads. But so far, only a portion of its highways are finished. Koibuchi predicted that most of Japan's highways will have high-definition maps in time for the 2020 Olympics, enabling the country's automakers to achieve their goal of automated driving on highways by then.
But getting the same granularity for Japan's jumble of city streets is a different matter.
"Surface roads," he said, "are a huge task."