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Toyota Becomes Largest Car Company to Test Driverless Cars on Public Roads

The world's largest automaker plans to make some of its cars capable of autonomous highway driving by 2020

2 min read
Toyota Becomes Largest Car Company to Test Driverless Cars on Public Roads
Toyota Motor Corp.'s automated driving test vehicle is displayed in Tokyo, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015.
Photo: AP Images

Silicon Valley giants such as Google may appear to have seized the wheel of self-driving car technology in recent years. But Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, has just gone public with its own plans to make some cars capable of autonomous highway driving by 2020. 

Toyota has generally taken a more cautious approach to self-driving cars by emphasizing that they will assist rather than replace drivers, according to the Wall Street Journal. The automaker named one of its prototype self-driving cars “Highway Teammate” and until recently preferred to call its system “advanced driver support” rather than “automated driving.”

But Toyota officials also told the Wall Street Journal that they don’t believe their car company has fallen behind Silicon Valley in developing robot cars. They pointed out that Toyota has already spent two decades studying autonomous driving technology.

While the automaker is gearing up for the out-of-the-park hit that is a fully autonomous vehicle, it planning to load the bases with singles, doubles, and triples in the form of a wide array of semiautonomous driving technologies that could end up in mass-market cars within the next few years. Fully autonomous driving for mass-market cars may not become a reality until the costs of all the self-driving sensors goes down, Toyota officials said.

Toyota’s preparations include forging ahead with big investments in talent and resources to advance its AI and robotics. It recently hired Gill Pratt, a former manager for the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency; Pratt led the DARPA Robotics Challenge. (For more, see this IEEE Spectrum interview with Pratt on his Toyota career plans.)

Neither Silicon Valley nor the car industry has been shy about recruiting talent from the other side in the race for autonomous vehicles. For example, Toyota previously announced a $50 million R&D collaboration with MIT and Stanford aimed at making both smart vehicles for the roads and robot helpers for people’s homes. In September, Google hired auto industry veteran John Krafcik, an engineer with a successful track record of leadership at car companies such as Ford and Hyundai.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images
Green

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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