As recently as a year ago, self-driving cars were basically science fiction. Sure, there were early buzzings that Apple or Google were going to build the self-driving automobile of the future — but those suggestions as recently at 2015 were still mostly met with eye-rolling by all but the most dedicated tech heads. Jumping into the Jetsons’ future where the car drives us to work while we sleep through the ride sounds neat — but still more like the stuff of the distant future, as opposed to something that might actually become common in our lifetime.
But 731 or so days can make a big different in what we all believe is possible — or even likely — and self-driving cars have gone from an interesting area of speculation to something that seems primed to get into the driver’s seat and go. Pardon the pun (it won’t be the last one).
Last month Ford announced a $1 billion investment in a joint product with Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based company with ties to Carnegie Mellon.
A two-month-old company, albeit one with a very impressive pedigree or two behind it. Argo CEO Bryan Salesky worked at the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) National Robotics Engineering Center and in 2011 led self-driving hardware at Google. The team also includes Dr. Brett Browning and Dr. Peter Rander, former CMU workers who come to Argo care of Uber.
The goal is to completely outfit Ford vehicles with self-driving technology by 2021.
And Ford is far from alone in aggressively pursuing this path — GM, BMW, Chrysler and VW are all following it, and the race to build the car that drives itself is on — and accelerating.
And, as of this week, it seems that the eighth largest auto manufacturer in the world, Toyota, is coming to the party with its own self-driving concept. The product, a billion-dollar investment Toyota announced in late 2015 into the Toyota Research Institute, the new Lexus LS 600hL test vehicle, has rolled out and is apparently ready to drive itself.
Two Research Areas, One Car
According to reports, the 600hL is designed around the use of light detection and ranging, radar, and camera arrays to enable self-driving, as opposed to the use and reliance on high-definition maps.
The design combines two different research products being done by Toyota to crack the self-driving puzzle: Chauffeur and Guardian.
Chauffeur is the program more focused on actual self-driving, broken into two areas. The first is Level 4 self-driving, where the car can drive itself, but only in certain environments like cities or highways. The Chauffeur program is also working to develop Level 5 self-driving capacity, which means the car can drive itself anywhere.
Guardian is a driver-assist system that monitors the environment around the vehicle, alerting the driver to potential hazards and stepping in to assist with crash avoidance when necessary.
“With a Guardian vehicle, the palette of things the car can do would be way more than just using the steering wheel and stepping on the brake,” Ryan Eustice, vice president of autonomous driving for Toyota Research Institute, told Forbes at a recent briefing in Sonoma, Calif.
“Imagine going through an intersection, and you’re going to get T-boned. The right thing for the car to do is accelerate you out of that. That requires a huge amount of understanding on the car’s part to be able to safely do that.”
Guardian tech will more likely hit the road well before the Chauffeur technology does, according to Toyota.
When any of this tech will be seen, however, remains up in the air. Toyota, while showing off its new features in California earlier this week, did not share when any of this is coming to its Lexus line, top-selling Camrys and other Toyota models, though elements of may start showing up over the next few years.
A key hardware upgrade that will make Guardian more likely is the addition of cloud connectivity for Toyota vehicles — an event currently scheduled for 2019 when the carmaker will make a “communications module” standard for vehicles it sells in the U.S., Japan and China.