Toyota is testing its autonomous driving technology on Japan’s demanding Shuto Expressway, which is narrow, curvy and busy.
Toyota wants its autonomous cars to work with their drivers like “close friends who share a common purpose, sometimes watching over each other and sometimes helping each other out,” said Seigo Kuzumaki, the company’s chief safety technology officer.
That is why Toyota calls its autonomous driving project Mobility Teammate. The system that I got to see in action on Tokyo’s challenging Shuto Expressway is called the Highway Teammate.
This is not my first time in a self-driving prototype. I tested Audi and BMW prototypes at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in the last two years. This, however, was the first time I was in a car that could autonomously enter a highway, change lanes at high speeds and even overtake other vehicles.
I’m a firm believer that autonomous driving is the next big thing for the automotive industry so being informed by a synthesized voice that the car is about to change lanes or pass another motorist and then seeing it happen is really impressive.
What was a bit disappointing was that I was not driving the prototype GS sedan from Toyota’s Lexus premium brand. For safety reasons Toyota required one of its test drivers to be behind the wheel to intervene if needed. In the back seat sat a Toyota engineer and an interpreter to explain what was happening and to answer my questions.
Toyota plans to offer what it calls “automated driving” — because the driver is always in control — by around 2020 starting in Japan. When the technology will appear in other markets, such as Europe, remains unclear. To offer autonomous – sorry, automated – driving on highways requires high-resolution digital maps, Toyota says. Right now these maps are available only in a limited number of places in Japan.
Toyota decided to test Mobility Teammate on the Shuto Expressway because it is curvy, narrow and very busy, making it one of Japan’s most complicated roadways. The feeling is that if the system works here, it will work anywhere.
During my test the technology functioned flawlessly, but there was one time when the driver had to re-take control. It was when cars ahead of us were queuing near a highway exit. I asked why this seemingly easy task was handed over to the driver when the car already proved it could do much more challenging things by itself. The answer was that the stop-and-go module was de-activated in this test car, but I was told that its development continues in parallel with the highway functions.
Another surprise was how often we were passed by other vehicles, including heavy trucks. That is because Mobility Teammate is designed to follow the posted speed limits, which means the GS smoothly cruised at a maximum of 80kph as nearly every other car traveled a bit faster.
One last noteworthy item was that I was told not to bring my luggage on the test because the trunk of the prototype was filled with all of the computing power needed to make the car drive itself.
Of course, all of that technology will be downsized by the time Toyota debuts it on the road.
My final verdict: Toyota’s technology is extremely promising.
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