Toyota wants robots to do the driving for us

Toyota is not only looking to the future of cars, but to a future of robotic cars. Columnist Rob Enderle writes that Toyota is working on two models of autonomous vehicles so you can be safe when you are driving or when the computer is driving.

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Toyota believes both methods will co-exist, in fact they are driving this (the CEO got to the “why” later).

[ Related: Google releases self-driving car performance report as U.S. proposes $4 billion in funding ]

Uncanny Valley

One of the interesting examples he provided was of the DARPA Robotics challenge and the Uncanny Valley. Apparently, when the robots who were trying to operate mutinously failed the audience empathized with them. Some, almost in tears, were concerned the related injuries were serious. People connected with the not-so-human-looking robots and attributed living characteristics to them. This kind of suggests that when we have autonomous cars a lot of folks will likely treat them more like pets than cars (granted I think there are more than a few of us that do that with our cars today).  

Toyota priorities

The CEO of Toyota has a number of priorities. They included safety, environment and mobility for all (regardless of infirmity or age). This is directly from Akio Toyoda’s CEO, and he added one more, that the firm should also maintain the aspect of “fun to drive.” I think this last is very important because that is what may be lost with autonomous cars, we could lose the fun aspect of the experience (granted when I’m driving in local traffic I’ve pretty much lost the “fun” part anyway).

Toyota produces 10 million cars per year, each car lasts around 10 years, so there are around 100 million Toyota cars in service. In total, Toyota cars drive over a trillion miles per year and a small problem could have a massive impact of safety and liability. This raises the stakes significantly for autonomous cars.

This is why Toyota wants both the chauffeur and guardian angel modes to coexist. In theory, in this way, cars will be as safe when you are driving or when the computer is driving. You will still get the feeling of driving but the system will aggressively protect you from harm or you can kick back and let the computer do the driving for you. I expect the result may not be that different than the car rides at Disneyland where you drive on a track and feel like you are driving, but are prevented from doing anything unsafe.  


Toyota already had 200 people working on the guardian angel and simulation parts of the problem and they just added 50 people to work on the chauffeur method. This new effort will be driven by two professors out of the University of Michigan. There is a lot of sharing right now between manufacturers both in terms of people and ideals. In this effort all of the major manufactures are working together to assure safe progress is made and that the solutions, while not completely equal, are all safe and successful.

Kind of looks like the automotive industry is rediscovering open source.  

The blending of human and machine

Pratt closed with a final picture of the quadriplegic patient using a computer aided system working in parallel with her to unlatch and open a door. This is a complex task and one that would have been impossible for someone as badly limited as the operator was.  

While the focus of this was on autonomous cars, it showcases how these advances could be applied to make people that aren’t currently mobile and have limited capability fully functional and capable again.  

A lot of folks talk about the singularity, the blending of human and machine, this presentation made it clear we are far closer than many now think.  

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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