Following in the autonomous driving tire tracks of Nissan, Tesla Motors and Audi, Japanese automaker Toyota has outlined its plans to introduce a fully-autonomous vehicle to the market by 2020 with the unveiling of a prototype autonomous vehicle this morning at a special event in Toyota City, Japan.
The car, a modified Lexus GS fitted with Toyota’s Highway Teammate technology has successfully completed months of testing and and around the roads of Toyota City, Japan. Designed to offer fully-autonomous driving capabilities between the on-ramp and off-ramp of a highway or freeway, its autonomous driving functions operate in a similar way to Tesla Motors’ highly-anticipated highway autopilot.
At the moment, Toyota’s Highway Teammate system is still very much in its early stages. Thanks to a pilot program in operation in the Aichi Prefecture where Toyota is based, Toyota has been able to test its autonomous vehicle technology in the real world, demonstrating that it is already impressive in its capabilities.
To activate the autonomous driving features of the Highway Teammate system, the car must first pass under the toll bridge of a highway where autonomous driving is allowed. Once on the onramp, the car’s on-board systems take over, merging with highway traffic, executing overtaking maneuvers were required, and keeping a safe distance from the car in front.
Like other autonomous drive cars in development, Toyota’s Highway Teammate prototype relies on a suite of different sensors on the car itself, as well as a detailed on-board map of the area it is driving along. using GPS and visual clues, the car knows exactly where it is at all times and plans ahead accordingly, picking the best lane for its next required move well ahead of time.
By 2020, Toyota says, the technology featured in its Highway Teammate system will be ready to be implemented in its range of production vehicles. At that point, Toyota’s autonomous drive technology — like many other automakers — will not only be able to talk to other cars and communicate important information about each vehicle’s position and destination, but also warn cars several miles away of queues and accidents, helping to minimize tailgates and disperse congestion quickly by sending other cars along different routes.
But while Toyota’s Highway Teammate may be another five years from its market debut, Toyota also used its event this morning to demonstrate a technology called ITS Connect, which will debut on Japanese-market vehicles this year.
ITS, or Intelligent Transportation Systems to use its full name, is a recently-developed standard which allows vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure information. Still very much in its infancy, ITS uses a standard 760 Mhz radio wave to transmit information about a car’s speed, position and direction to other vehicles on the road. Similarly, ITS can allow traffic signals to warn cars that they are about to change, or even help draw attention to emergency vehicles needing to quickly pass through an intersection on a red signal.
In an ideal world, ITS can work with on-board sensors and driver prediction algorithms to warn other cars when one vehicle detects a pedestrian in the road, for example, or warn an ITS-equipped car that another vehicle is approaching a four-way stop without slowing down. It could even help drivers time arrivals at intersections in order to avoid stop/start traffic and improve overall fuel efficiency.
But as Automotive News details, ITS only works properly on stretches of road where the road furniture has been upgraded and there’s a significant number of other ITS-equipped cars on the road. Like the advent of electric cars or hydrogen fuel cell technology, there’s something of a chicken-and-egg scenario, but with Toyota rolling out ITS on three of its Japanese-market cars this year, it will only be a matter of time before other automakers follow suit.
What’s more, since ITS can work with both autonomous and manually-driven vehicles, it could serve as an excellent way to ensure that even cars with human rather than robotic drivers stay safe as roads get ever-busier and more congested.
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