In an effort to differentiate itself from other automakers in the coming age of self-driving cars, Toyota offers a telling insight into how they intend to place a new emphasis on technology. Mobility Teammate, as Toyota calls their innovative self-driving systems, is on full display on this day as a Toyota test driver merges a slick white Lexus GS onto the crowded Bayshore Route of Tokyo’s Shuto Expressway. With a simple click of a button the driver sits back and releases the steering wheel. The car begins changing lanes, accelerating, and braking in an impressive display of autononomous driving.
Toyota’s vision for the future of autonomous driving systems focuses on keeping a human being heavily involved. No references are made to the frailty of human judgment, the superiority of the computer over mortal intelligence, or even the convenience of driverless technology. Toyota plans to fortify the relationship between human and car in keeping consumers in the driver’s seat (and totally attentive) even though their hands are not upon the steering wheel. “Interactions between drivers and cars should mirror those between close friends who share a common purpose, sometimes watching over each other and sometimes helping each other,” Toyota says of its Mobility Teammate system. “This approach acknowledges the utility of automated driving technologies while maintaining the fun experience of driving itself.” Even Toyota’s Mobility Teammate logo reflects the close bond between human and automobile as it depicts a human and a robot; each with one hand on the steering wheel.
The idea to keep humans involved in the Mobility Teammate strategy comes right from the top. Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda is an accomplished race car driver that has constantly iterated his desire to keep the Toyota brand on the cutting edge of excitement. Toyota’s current tag line in japan is “Fun to drive again” and Toyoda is the number one fan of making and keeping Toyotas fun to drive. Herein lies the quandary: How do you keep up with the current (safety) demands for autonomous automobile design development and build exciting cars? The Toyota answer: the Mobility Teammate system. In this system the vehicle and the driver are viewed as teammates. The human looks out for the car and vice-versa. “The concept has not changed, but our way of explanation has changed,” said Ken Koibuchi, general manager in charge of Toyota’s autonomous driving program. “How much would be done by automated driving became unclear. So we tried to describe two things in one word. People and the vehicle are teammates.” This sounds great in theory but what is it really like in reality? The truth is that there is very little left for the human to do. Our test drive went something like this: The driver programmed our destination into the navigation system and drove to the highway on ramp as usual. As the vehicle passed under a sort of toll booth contraption, the Mobility Teammate system indicated that it was activated. The driver clicked the button and released his grip on the steering wheel. With that the car seemed to slow slightly, then a surge of acceleration and the car began to maneuver into traffic; automatically initiating the blinker and avoiding heavy traffic during Tokyo’s notorious evening rush hour. After approximately five miles of keeping speed with traffic the car began to change lanes again, using the turn signals and skillfully weaving through traffic to use the off ramp as programmed. The entire process was easy and fairly amazing to witness.
Toyota plans to introduce this system to the public by 2020.