Automakers Face Long Climb, Cautions Toyota’s New Autonomous Czar

How do you figure out what you don’t know that you don’t know.

by on Jan.06, 2016

Toyota's Gill Pratt is leading the Japanese maker's efforts in the autonomous vehicle arena.

Early pioneers didn’t realize just how big the Rocky Mountains were until they started climbing up the foothills. In many ways, it’s the same challenge for pioneers in the new world of autonomous vehicles, suggests Gill Pratt.

One of the biggest challenges is trying to learn what you never thought about before – call it “uncertainty on uncertainty,” says the new CEO of the Toyota Research Institute. Funded to the tune of $1 billion, TRI is the think tank Toyota has set up to help it develop self-driving vehicle technology.

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That’s one of the most competitive fields in the auto industry today, with some manufacturers hoping to have their first, fully-autonomous vehicles on the road by 2020. But in a keynote speech at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Pratt throws colder water on those optimistic expectations, warning that, “We’re a long way from the finish line.”

At a show traditionally focused on TVs, digital cameras and smartphones, the auto industry has staked out a major presence at this year’s CES, and the news conference schedule is crowded with shows focusing on autonomous technology. Ford, for example, announced it is tripling its fleet of self-driving prototypes on Tuesday, and Kia revealed its own autonomous vehicle plans.

Until recently, Toyota had been one of the most skeptical of manufacturers, insisting it was limiting the scope of its research to driver assistance systems designed to help a human remain in control. The recent formation of TRI marked a shift in direction, Toyota executives now laying out plans to put driverless vehicles into production – eventually.

Ford CEO Mark Fields holds aloft a new Velodyne LIDAR "puck" that will be used on Fusion autonomous vehicle prototypes.

For his part, Pratt might best be described as a cautious proponent. He notes that while there are already scores of autonomous prototypes running around on public roads, what has so far been accomplished is “relatively easy because most driving is easy. Where we really need help is when driving isn’t easy.”

(Toyota introducing new autonomous mapping technology. For more, Click Here.)

That can include snowstorms, poorly marked roads, crowded urban centers where drivers and pedestrians don’t obey the rules – or where a critical vehicle sensor suddenly fails.

“We need reliability a million times better than it has been,” he declares.

Pratt is by no means the only one waving the yellow caution flag. Google, considered the leader in autonomous research, recently reported the 16th crash involving one of its self-driving prototypes. In every instance to date the human driver in the other vehicle has taken blame.

At least legally. But Google officials have acknowledged they need to better understand how human drivers behave and that may mean they have to program their cars to occasionally run the yellow light when the car behind isn’t likely to stop.

(Click Here for details about Toyota’s $1 billion artificial intelligence center.)

The closer researchers get to the mountain, Pratt implies, the more challenges they face. Indeed, facial signals are something human drivers rely on – when they’re trying to determine how to negotiate a four-way stop, for example, or are dealing with a pedestrian who may or may not walk out into traffic.

Simply getting an autonomous vehicle to recognize a school crossing guard or a construction zone or accident site not on the digital map poses major challenges.

Where “society tolerates a lot of human error, we expect machines to be perfect,” says Pratt, a former head of autonomous research for the quasi-military Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – which also helped develop what eventually became the Internet.

Despite his cautions, Pratt believes autonomous vehicles will “eventually” come to market and that they will have a major impact on automotive safety. Toyota’s goal is make its self-driving vehicles unable to crash on their own. If he’s right, the payoff would be tremendous. About 32,000 Americans are killed in traffic accidents each year, with 1.2 million such deaths worldwide.

(To see more Ford’s mobility plans explained at CES, Click Here.)

How soon that will happen is a matter of intense debate. Nissan is shooting for 2020. Kia outlined its own autonomous vehicle goals during a CES presentation, targeting 2030. For his part, Pratt says there are simply too many mountains to climb to come up with a target date he can’t be confident about.

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2 Responses to “Automakers Face Long Climb, Cautions Toyota’s New Autonomous Czar”

  1. DWH says:

    So let me get this right I’m suppose to run the yelow light because of being tailgated by an idiot? Relying on facial expression is also worthless with alot of zombie drivers thinking out of body thoughts. The legal profession is worried simply because humans will be at fault . As it shows already with google vehicles
    A reduction of crashes is a reduction of income if the lawyers cant find fault with autonomous vehicles,

    • GT101 says:

      Thank God there are a few people like Gill Pratt who get it… The clueless think you just whip up a go-kart with a computer control and off to the streets you go. It’s a Helleva lot more complicated than most people can even begin to understand.

      Contrary to the media reports, the Google vehicles have been involved in at least 16 reported accidents of which TWO were from improper programming causing the vehicle to slam on the brakes as soon as the light turned yellow. There is no way to write this off as driver error when the vehicle’s computer was programmed improperly and caused the accident.

      For those who don’t know the yellow caution light is there to allow time for the intersection to clear of traffic so the other cars can proceed. In Michigan if you slam on the brakes and cause a rear end collision you are ticketed and responsible for 50% or more of the accident – because it’s irrational to do a panic stop in traffic when the traffic light changes to yellow.

      Then there was the improper programming of the Google vehicles limiting them to 25 just mph max when the Minimum roadway speed was posted to be 35 mph. Why would a Google test vehicle programmer drive in a minimum 35 mph zone in RUSH HOUR traffic when they knew that their vehicle could not exceed 25 mph? More evidence of the mentality involved by those rushing to be the first to market with a deadly AV.

      There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate that AVs will reduce or eliminate accidents or deaths. While this may be the goal, $$$$ is the real goal and the very reason why the Feds should have already established the safety, operational and maintenance regs for AVs instead of the knee-jerk reaction we will see after the AVs start killing people.

      AV’s have the potential to enhance the lives of many but they are simply not a device that can eliminate all accidents or injuries. In fact the first 5+ years of AV use are almost guaranteed to result in unnecessary accidents caused by improperly programmed vehicles, improper designs, unacceptable limp modes, etc. It’s the Wild West to see who can rake in the most gold by selling defective goods to naïve consumers before the Feds have no choice but to step in and halt sales of these defective and deadly AVs. Then it will take another 5+ years to deliver the real AVs with the proper designs, safety and security systems the first AVs should have been mandated to include.

      The legal community also has to establish who will die in an unavoidable accident – which is going to happen many times. Since AVs can NOT take evasive action like a competent driver can, people in AVs will be sitting ducks when another vehicle is out of control or when the AV stops on the railroad tracks with a train coming at speed, or when another car spins on ice and slams the AV, etc. Thus the siren chasers must come to an agreement with state and Federal authorities and with the insurance companies who are NOT going to cover AVs for mechanical breakdowns, computer crashes and other malfunctions that should not happen but will just as PC crashes occur daily.

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