Toyota Bets on ‘Guardian’ Autonomy

Article By : David Benjamin

Toyota Research Institute (TRI) announced at the CES that it's "autonomous chauffeur system," Guardian, will be made available in the area of autonomous vehicles (AV)...

LAS VEGAS — Calling it "the democratization of safety," Gil Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), announced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that TRI's "autonomous chauffeur system," Guardian, will be made available to every automaker and technology company engaged in research and testing in the area of autonomous vehicles (AV).

For several years, Pratt has used his appearances at CES to warn that the gold rush to self-driving cars has obscured the technical difficulty taking the steering wheel out of human hands and the inevitable machine errors — sometimes fatal — that set back the AV cause and exacerbate public distrust of this still-embryonic and controversial automotive innovation.

Gil Pratt, CEO of the TRI

Gil Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute (TRI)

As noted in the same press conference by Bob Carter, Toyota's North American chief, the auto industry's responsibility to reduce its impact on the world's environment and climate in many weighs dwarfs its efforts to develop driverless cars and trucks.

Nonetheless, here at CES, autonomous driving remains center stage, although under a dimmer spotlight than a year ago. At that time, when Pratt explained Toyota's Guardian system — a species of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) -— he was swimming against a tide of enthusiasm that made Level 4 and 5 AVs seem to be an imminent tsunami.

A series of technology setbacks, the rising cost of R&D without much ROI, and several AV test fatalities — which led to public outrage and even an outbreak of vandalism in one "test city," Phoenix — have quieted AV zealots and restored an emphasis on safety, which is Gil Pratt's bailiwick.

Pratt reiterated an oft-spoken point, that mistake-free autonomy for a car in the complex context of the open road — in unpredictable weather, among human drivers who are chronically unreliable, and where the rules of the road vary from state to state, town to town and even driver to driver — is really hard.

"How do we train a machine to negotiate the social ballet," said Pratt, of streets and highways, trucks, buses and cars, frazzled commuters, NASCAR wannabes and little old ladies. Pratt said, essentially that the human factor is a fact of life in the effort to reduce the annual U.S. traffic-death toll of 40,000.

Pratt said the promoters of AV have a "moral obligation" (a term not often uttered at CES) to apply automated vehicle technology as fast as possible in ways that combine "the skills and strengths of humans with those of the machine."

He explained that TRI's Guardian system has been designed toward that objective, mimicking the "blended envelope control" implemented in modern fighter jets. Pratt said the pilot doesn't exactly "drive" the aircraft, but monitors the autopilot system and responds when potential difficulties crop up.

In a car, said Pratt, "Most of the time, the driver feels completely in control," even when something might be going wrong up ahead on the road. Like blended envelope control, "The machine (Guardian) steps in to guide the driver to a safer situation." Often this does not require sudden action, violent swerving or panic braking.

Pratt offered no details on the "open-sourcing" of Guardian, particularly whether it would be sold, shared, licensed or included in partnership arrangements.

Before introducing Pratt, Toyota North America head Bob Carter struck a similarly socially responsible note by emphasizing the green aspects of the company's outlook.

Toyota, Bob Carter

Toyota North America head Bob Carter

While stating a goal of making all Toyota's operations and 95 percent of its vehicles complete free of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, he cited the company's collaboration with truck manufacturer Paccar. He said Paccar has logged 10,000 test miles, running zero-emission, electric heavy trucks between Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Working with Toyota, Carter said, Paccar is building ten new zero-emission trucks to operate in the L.A. area. "Imagine," he said, "what we could accomplish with the scalability of this technology."

— David Benjamin is a writer and journalist who contributes occasionally to EE Times.

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