TECH: Autonomy Is Coming In Steps

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According to the people designing autonomous cars, the next big step is not a chauffeur, but a guardian angel.

News stories tend to focus on the extremes. This is true of the autonomous vehicle coverage we all view and read. Typically, the story focuses on a vision-impaired individual being driven by a car to Taco Bell, or a fancy electric car driving a sleeping passenger around in California. However, autonomous vehicle technology that most of us will use on coming cars will not be a personal driver, but more like a guardian angel.

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This according to the person leading the team building next autonomous vehicle, Dr. Gill Pratt, CEO at the Toyota Research Institute (TRI).  TRI was formed in a collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford, and Toyota to commercialize autonomous vehicles. Dr. Pratt is just one of the team members who have already built a fully autonomous vehicle. He did it as part of a DARPA challenge and others on his team were also involved in that successful endeavor.

At a recent conference sponsored by MIT and the New England Motor Press, Dr. Pratt was one of the industry experts who provided a peek behind the curtain at what is really going on. Building a car that can drive itself is already possible. What he is doing is harder. He began by saying that Akio Toyoda, the leader of Toyota worldwide only asked that Dr. Pratt promise one thing when he began the TRI group; “Keep driving fun.”

That, in a nutshell, is why your next vehicle won’t be fully autonomous in the way most media stories portray them. Dr. Pratt explains that TRI’s first objective is to reduce the approximately 30,000 vehicle deaths in the U.S. to nearly zero.

As it turns out, driving is already incredibly safe.  Toyota vehicles alone cover over one trillion miles per year. The rate of crashes is tiny, but it still needs to be smaller. However, researchers know that the public, which tolerates over 10,000 alcohol-related car deaths per year in America now, won ‘t tolerate any autonomous vehicle crashes at all.

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Hence, the guardian angel concept. Imagine a car technology that will build upon the automatic emergency braking we already have in cars today that prevent forward crashes and rear crashes. The technology will constantly scan the coming traffic for clues to danger. When a situation that might be dangerous is ahead, the car will nudge the driver to take appropriate action. Think stability control and anti-lock brakes. They have not ruined the fun for drivers.

Dr. Pratt gave examples of a person around a corner who is in a crosswalk. If the car knows the driver intends to take that turn, it will know the pedestrian is there and alert the driver, who at that point cannot even see the person crossing. Overall Dr. Pratt says that less than one percent of driving will involve the autonomous safety systems in the car.

google prius at taco bell

A time may come when cars drive us from place to place without our intervention.  However, the important step between that possible outcome and where we are today will be much more of an evolution of the safety systems becoming more and more commonplace.