Toyota unveils self-driving Lexus at CES 2013

Ultra high-definition televisions may have captured most of the headlines during the first day of the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but the far more important announcement may be Toyota's unveiling of its autonomous vehicle project. Peter Nowak talked to Toyota about the future of its self-driving car.

Japanese car maker joins ranks of Google in developing 'robot cars'

Toyota's Lexus self-driving car is exhibited at the 2013 Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. The Japanese automaker is reluctant to call it a 'robot car.' (Peter Nowak/CBC)

Ultra high-definition televisions may have captured most of the headlines during the first day of the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but the far more important announcement may be Toyota’s unveiling of its autonomous vehicle project.

The Japanese car maker is showing off its Advanced Active Safety Research Vehicle at the show. With unlikely rival Google making huge strides in the development of self-driving cars, Toyota is keen not to fall behind.

Jim Pisz, corporate manager of Toyota’s North American business strategy, discussed the company’s efforts in this area with CBC News.

Q: So what exactly are you showing off here this week?

A: We’re globally introducing our autonomous strategy, in a number of ways. We’re talking about our philosophy and we’re introducing this very interesting vehicle, the Advanced Active Safety Research Vehicle. We’re also introducing our [intelligent transportation system] proving grounds [a nine-acre test course in Japan]. All of it plays a part in our development of autonomous technologies.

The Advanced Active Safety Research Vehicle is a real vehicle that was developed in Michigan at our Toyota Research Institute. It has a broad range of technologies in it, with the three fundamentals being recognition technology, which you can see hanging off the top and front of the car. It’s judgment technology and it’s also operation technology. Those three work together to have the vehicle drive by itself.

The car can drive by itself, but our philosophical approach is that autonomous does not mean driverless.

Q: Toyota seems to be very careful in making that distinction. Why is that so important?

A: It’s really because there are so many unknowns at this point. The technology is so promising and much of it is in the vehicle that we already sell, the Lexus LS 460. Some of the technologies in that car exceed the capabilities of a normal human being. The recognition on the [research] vehicle – it can see around corners, it can see further than your eye can see, it knows precisely where it is – so are we ready to accept that? People are embracing it, but there’s also an element of education where we have to bring society along to accept these kinds of advancements. We also have to bring governments and regulators along so they can truly understand it.

There are so many thoughts about what we don’t know. I would ask you the question: How far should one autonomous vehicle follow behind another autonomous vehicle? There’s no precedent, so regulators and law enforcement and everyone else has to weigh in on that.

Q: You’re also obviously taking pains to not call it a robot car, even though that captures the public imagination in a way. Is there a danger to calling it that?

A: The term "robot car" maybe doesn’t necessarily talk about what its true capabilities are. We believe the approach going forward is to take a layered approach, where there’s a focus on taking technologies that are clearly advanced – lasers, radar – and finding ways to make the car safer. By doing that, you build a trust, which goes back to having society accept it. We have to have Canadians and everyone else trust technology before it can really be embraced. "Robot car" sends an image of something different.

Q: Speaking of robots, Toyota is well known for them in Japan, yet this car has been developed in North America. Are these two completely different fields?

A: They’re a world apart, but they’re working in concert. The proving grounds that we developed in Japan are designed for machine-to-machine communication. We think that’s a very important step toward developing a fully autonomous vehicle, so the focus in Japan is on that. In North America, where there’s a lot of interest in autonomous technology, it’s maybe being defined in North America. So that side of it is being developed here. Ultimately, it’s the car, the people and the driving environment that need to mesh for this future.

Q: What do you make of Google’s efforts? There seems to be a lot of competition and these cars seem to be developing faster than anyone thought.

A: Google is a great company and we occasionally talk to them, but our paths are independent. What we’ve done in understanding Google is we use a lot of similar technology, mostly commercially available. If you talk to Google, you’ll find their vision and goal is almost exactly the same as ours, which is to eliminate traffic fatalities and accidents. So we have a common goal and we’re starting in similar places with similar technology.

The difference in our companies is that Google is expert in and focused on software and mapping, while we’re experts in engineering and safety features. We’re taking two different paths, hopefully to the same goal.

Q: What about the costs of integrating these technologies into vehicles? How hard is it to do that in a cost-effective way?

A: You have to consider what’s on that vehicle [the Lexus LS 460], which is commercially available, to what’s on [the research vehicle]. The 460 has millimetre wave radar, stereo high-definition cameras, near-field infrared projectors, all of which do automated features, but it’s taken time for those technologies to become commercially available, price-wise.

The only other thing I can tell is that Toyota has made a commitment not just to build this car, but to a team of PhDs to study every move it makes. That commitment for a smart company like Toyota will hopefully have a payoff.

Q: Are you going to test them in Nevada and California as well, where they’re street legal?

A: That’s not clear yet.