Tech: Toyota’s new self-driving car has two steering wheels to prevent robot joyriding

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Today, the Toyota Research Institute, the Silicon Valley-based arm of the biggest carmaker in the world, unveiled the latest version of its autonomous vehicle, featuring better sensors, improved detection, and two steering wheels to better transfer control from human to robot.

The vehicle — a Lexus LS 600hL test vehicle equipped with LIDAR, radar, and camera arrays — is an iterative improvement on the vehicle Toyota first showed off earlier this year. (The company’s executives are calling this one Platform 2.1.) An undisclosed number are being tested in both closed courses and on public roads in Silicon Valley Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The vehicle is the base for two of TRI’s self-driving research systems: Chauffeur and Guardian. Chauffeur is research into Level 4 self-driving, where the car is restricted to certain geographical areas like a city or interstates, as well as Level 5 autonomy, which would work anywhere. Guardian is a driver-assist system (think Tesla’s Autopilot) that monitors the environment around the vehicle, alerting the driver to potential hazards and stepping in to assist with crash avoidance when necessary. It also monitors the driver’s behavior within the vehicle, using an infrared sensor mounted on the steering column to detect drowsiness or distraction.

“The usability and safety are really important to us, and Toyota in general,” said James Kuffner, chief technology officer at TRI. “We think that driver monitoring technology to basically confirm that a driver is engaged is an important part of deploying this technology safely.” He added, “Our research vehicle prototype we think is the most perceptive car in the world.”

The focus on perception, both inside and outside the vehicle, reflects the growing belief among automakers that in order to sell consumers and regulators on these autonomous systems, they’ll need to convince everyone that the vehicle can see better and respond to all possible conditions quicker than a human driver. The National Traffic Safety Board issued a stern warning recently to all automakers working on highly automated systems in its response to the fatal accident involving a Tesla driver last year.

Kuffner insisted that Toyota had “over-engineered” its research vehicle to ensure it was as safe as possible. “Our software system fuses information from all our sensors to try to come up with a very reliable model for what is happening around the car, and cross-validate the measurements between each of those sensing modalities,” he said.

The second steering wheel, which Kuffner called a “unique dual cockpit configuration,” was included to allow a trained safety operator to take over during testing if need be when the car confronts obstacles in the road. Also, if Toyota’s researchers want to let the car drive itself without anyone in the driver seat, they can with little concern that the vehicle will go on a joyride or make a dangerous maneuvers.

The vehicle is equipped with LIDAR laser sensors built by Luminar, a Portola Valley, California-based startup that is positioning itself as a competitor of heavy hitters like Velodyne and Quanergy. The startup, which has raised $36 million in seed-stage funding so far, builds its LIDAR systems from scratch. That means the company engineers (and owns) its own lasers, receivers, chips, packaging, and more, rather than incorporating off-the-shelf components.

Austin Russell, the company’s 22-year-old CEO and co-founder, said that Toyota Research Institute was the first of four OEMs that he was publicly confirmed to be working with. “We really wanted to work with the best and have been selective about types of companies that can deploy autonomous vehicles at scale and in a reasonable time frame,” Russell told The Verge. “TRI understands the landscape.”

To be sure, Toyota has been more coy about releasing its autonomous systems to the public. A recent analysis by Navigant places the Japanese automaker further behind OEMs like Ford, General Motors, Daimler, and BMW in its ability to deploy a fully self-driving car by the industry’s target date of 2021. Several big car companies have already struck deals tech companies like Waymo, Uber, and Lyft to speed the process along. But Toyota has stayed noticeably on the sidelines during much of the talk around partnerships.

Kuffner said not to count them out. As the world’s largest automaker with its hands in everything from robotics to artificial intelligence, Toyota is well positioned to roll out its system when it’s ready, he said. “We are very excited for what’s planned.”

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Tech: Toyota’s new self-driving car has two steering wheels to prevent robot joyriding

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