Trucks at Work

At CES 2016, Toyota takes a long look into the future

Vehicles that not only run on hydrogen but offer trillion-mile reliability and drive themselves are just a few of the “future of mobility” efforts Toyota is hard at work upon, according to Bob Carter, senior VP of automotive operations for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. – and they may become full-fledged reality sooner rather than later, he explained during a press conference this week at the CES 2016 in Las Vegas.

“We see the vehicle of the future as more than just a mode of transportation,” Carter said. “Instead, it will be something more useful, accessible and exciting than ever before. Next-generation connected and automated vehicles will optimize their own operational capabilities and deliver comfort, convenience and joy to passengers – and they’ll be arriving sooner than you think.”

Technologies Toyota is showing off at CES 2016 – formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show – included:

  • The Toyota Smart Center: This is what Carter called “the heart” of Toyota’s vision for a “Smart Mobility Society” that connects people, vehicles and communities. A secure and private cloud-based computing system collects secure vehicle data, analyzes information from millions of vehicles around the globe and provides customers with personalized services that make life easier.
  • Next generation connected service systems such as Agent+, which leverages multiple factors including day, time, location, and driving history to predict likely destinations and help guide drivers where they need to go quickly and efficiently. 
  • The Mobility Teammate Concept: This showcased Toyota’s approach to automated driving, said Carter – building relationships between people and cars to help them team up in pursuit of safe and enjoyable driving. “This approach acknowledges the utility of automated driving technologies while maintaining the fun experience of driving itself,” he stressed.
  • An artificial intelligence display, where scale-model Prius connected vehicles learn from and share with each other in real time to create a safe driving environment. 
  • The Toyota FCV Plus concept vehicle: This is a concept fuel cell vehicle (FCV) designed to illustrate Toyota’s “vision” of a connected, sustainable hydrogen-based automotive society (and you can see what it looks like above). “The concept vehicle showcases the potential of hydrogen fuel cell technology beyond just the automotive industry, and is capable generating electricity directly from hydrogen stored outside the vehicle and thus operating as a stable source of electric power for use at home or on the go,” Carter pointed out.
  • The Toyota Kikai: Another concept vehicle (“Kikai” meaning “machine” in Japanese) that brings the machinery of the vehicle out from beneath the body and makes an open display of its beauty.

Gill Pratt, Toyota executive technical advisor and CEO of two-month old $1 billion-funded the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), added a few more points during his part of the press event.

“While many of the vehicles and technologies on display at the Toyota exhibit are future concepts, some – like telematics systems such as Agent+ – may be coming soon to Toyota vehicles,” Pratt (seen at right) noted, pointing out that Toyota is planning to invest an additional $50 million to support artificial intelligence and robotics research at Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“Although the industry has made great strides over the last five years, we are a long way from the finish line of fully automated cars,” he explained.

“These systems can only handle certain speed ranges, certain weather conditions, certain street complexity, or certain traffic,” Pratt noted. “And despite the progress you will see, most of what has been collectively accomplished has been relatively easy because most driving is easy. Where we need autonomy to help us, is when the driving is difficult. And it’s this hard part that we intend to address.”

For example, he said that, up to now, the automotive industry has measured the on-road reliability of autonomous vehicles in the millions of miles. “But to achieve full autonomy we actually need reliability that is a million times better – we need trillion-mile reliability.”

That’s because, though society tolerates a lot of human error, “we expect machines to be much better. We expect them to be ever-ready and nearly perfect,” Pratt stressed. “Thus, the technologies we develop have to work not only at the million-mile scale, but at the trillion-mile scale.”

To that end, Pratt said his new TRI shop has four initial mandates:

  • Enhance the safety of automobiles with the ultimate goal of creating a car that is incapable of causing a crash, regardless of the skill or condition of the driver.
  • Increase access to cars to those who otherwise cannot drive, including people with special needs and seniors.
  • Translate Toyota’s expertise in creating products for “outdoor mobility” into products for “indoor mobility.” In other words, “Toyota’s goal is to move people across the room…across town…and across the country,” he explained.
  • Accelerate scientific discovery by applying techniques from artificial intelligence and machine learning particularly in the area of materials science.

So what kinds of problems will Pratt, TRI, and the scientists Toyota is tapping at Stanford and MIT be working on? Here’s an example: “Uncertainty on Uncertainty.”

What does that mean? “It's one thing to teach a car to respond safely to events that we expect to occur – such as what to do if a cyclist suddenly,” noted Pratt. “Much more challenging, though, is teaching a car to respond safely to events that we haven’t anticipated.”

[On the right, by the way, is the Toyota Kikai concept car.]

For example, take debris falling off a truck in front of a self-driving car. “Should it think of the debris like another car? Well, kind of – but the debris might suddenly break apart into many pieces,” he said. “So, Should it think of the debris like a pedestrian? Well, kind of – but the debris might initially be moving at high speed.”

To address that particular challenge, Pratt noted that the Stanford team will be augmenting machine-learning with new methods that in his words “generalize competence” in order to handle the unanticipated.

“I'll spare you the math, but they'll work to measure the robustness of automated vehicle systems not only against risks that are known, but risks that haven't been seen before,” Pratt said.

Whew! That’s some big thinking – and no doubt it’s thinking that heavy truck engineers are doing, too, as they test self-driving big rigs.

Tell you one thing: these are not dull times for vehicle engineers.

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