Toyota wants to pull autonomy’s safety benefit forward
With so many autonomy-enabling technologies and loungy car cockpits-of-the-future littering the CES show floor, and with so many Aptiv-branded Lyft BMWs shuttling attendees around Las Vegas autonomously, it’s easy to imagine that full level-5 commuting nirvana is mere months, not years away. Against this backdrop Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, tapped the brakes. In his refreshingly realistic assessment of the landscape, he explained the three programming challenges of autonomy:
- Perceive the environment
- Predict what’s about to happen
- Plan a safe path through it
Pratt believes the industry is getting pretty close to solving number 1, with loads of innovations on display at CES. Number 3 is a cinch. It’s that middle step where state-of-the-art artificial intelligence is still nowhere near matching the capabilities of a focused human brain under all conditions all the time, and getting to that point could take many years. So sure, we’ll see autonomous ride-hailing and package delivery services launch in meticulously mapped urban areas (with decent weather) in the very near future. Such commercial vehicles, in operation around the clock, can pay back the high investment cost of the elaborate sensor arrays required for true autonomy. Pratt also cautions against expecting the rollout of these AVs to dent our traffic fatality rate much.
But maybe the sensors and intelligence we have today can dent our 100-traffic-deaths-per-day rate during these interim years while we retain control of our cars. In other words, in an effort to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, Pratt and TRI propose rolling out Guardian very soon.
Guardian works like a vigilant, attentive copilot or driving instructor, continuously checking your work as you drive, “perceiving” the environment via cameras, lidar, and radar, and monitoring your own attentiveness by watching your head and eye movements. Guardian will warn you of impending dangers, and then if you don’t react quickly or thoroughly enough, it will “plan” your optimal path through the danger and help you execute it by adding steering, brake, or accelerator inputs. It remains completely up to you to “predict” what your fellow flawed humans are going to do (and whether you’ll feel worse if you hit those nuns or that baby carriage).
Guardian has been in development for three years and is likely to roll out “in the early 2020s.” Furthermore, Toyota intends to make the technology available to any interested manufacturers—though the terms of such sharing have yet to be determined. The system can be programmed to work with whatever sensors are available—and many cars on the road today have sufficient exterior sensors to inform Guardian, though the capabilities will obviously vary and driver-monitoring sensors are a must. Here’s another interesting application: Guardian can serve as a copilot/redundant system on fully autonomous vehicles like the Toyota e-Palette concept unveiled at last year’s CES.
Pratt expects Guardian to pay the biggest dividends in assisting novice and elderly drivers, who are most prone to crashing today. He reckons the system needs to alert these drivers in some fairly obvious way when they have just narrowly avoided catastrophe so as to encourage them to improve their driving skills (or surrender their keys). Perhaps a loud warning noise or a report to the insurance agency (or a text message to parents) would discourage people from “leaning on” Guardian.