Self-driving cars are quickly moving into the realm of reality. Several major corporations from all over the industry spectrum are throwing their resources into developing technology that assists and even eliminates the human agency behind the wheel. The Google self-driving car has successfully completed over 1.4 million miles of test driving (with only a handful of minor accidents). Tesla Motors has introduced an autopilot program that parks, steers and makes lane shifts and though the company now infamously has endured a fatality during a recent test drive in May, the company still remains on track to develop its own driverless vehicle within the next couple of years. Most recently, Toyota announced its intention to invest $1 billion over the next 5 years into research and development of its own self-driving car.
Toyota’s announcement was big news; a company that has historically branded its products as being safe, reliable and moderately priced is entering a risky, high-concept endeavor that seemingly caters to the luxury class. When it comes to aesthetic design, Toyota vehicles are typically considered practical vehicles versus “vanity” rides. It’s safe to say that in most cases, a new Toyota is less likely to be chosen by an affluent, fashion-forward hipster than by a parent who needs to get safely to and from work (without spending too much on gas).
But this investment signals that the company has recognized that safety in car design is being more and more strongly associated with self-driving technology. The self-driving concept is far less a novelty to suit the convenience of lazy joyriders, and more a protection against the hazards of increasingly crowded highways. As urban centers around the United States continue to sprawl and people spend more and more time commuting, the average consumer is more interested now than ever in the advanced safety features in self-driving cars.
The Toyota Research Institute
Accordingly, last year Toyota created the Toyota Research Institute as a center for research and development of self-driving technology. But where other technology firms have built their self-driving cars around imaging sensors, the TRI has focused its efforts on artificial intelligence.
Gill Pratt, CEO of the TRI, said their hope was to enable the car “to be evasive beyond the one lane.” In other words, rather than simply developing a car that can sense obstacles in their direct path such as pedestrians or other vehicles entering their lane, Toyota hopes to equip cars with an internal decision-making rubric that enables them to “think” and act on behalf of the driver. Cars with this level of “intelligence” could perform their own evasive maneuvers and even take control of the car if the driver became impaired or unable to make safe decisions behind the wheel.
Pratt described their goal for artificial intelligence in imaginative terms: “Essentially (it would) be like a guardian angel, pushing on the accelerators, pushing on the steering wheel, pushing on the brake in parallel with you.”
Safety Features of the Future
So what can future drivers expect to find in the vehicles of the future? Just a few of the projected safety features in self-driving cars include:
- Quicker reaction times to driving hazards, such as potholes, ice or obstacles in the road
- Tighter swerve-and-corrections that allow the vehicle to both avoid and prevent collisions
- “Lane keep assist,” a technology that nudges the vehicle back into the lane if it starts to drift
- Reduced trip lengths by choosing a less congested route
- Advanced accident detection
- Automatic braking
Despite the frequent news of advances being made in the heavily competitive self-driving car market, it can be hard to imagine that we’ll be driving these fantastic-sounding vehicles anytime soon. But in fact, the emergence of these artificial intelligence-equipped cars may be much closer than anyone thinks. Toyota has stated its goal of having a self-driving car on the highway by the time of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Meanwhile, fellow vehicle manufacturers in the “safe and reliable” category—including Honda, Ford and Volkswagen—have set up similar research centers to invest in the R&D of artificial intelligence.