Doubling Down on Humans

Gill Pratt says TRI has made real progress on Guardian self-driving technology “designed to amplify human performance, not replace it”

January 08, 2019
To the Power of Four -- Toyota Research Institute unveiled the fourth iteration of its automated driving test vehicle at
CES in Las Vegas on Monday.
 

What’s the latest on Toyota’s development of autonomous driving technology? Dr. Gill Pratt, chief executive officer of the Toyota Research Institute, provided an update on Monday to media who gathered in Las Vegas for the annual CES trade show.

 
He also took the wraps off TRI-P4, engineers’ code for the fourth generation of TRI’s automated driving test vehicle platform. It’s based on the new Lexus LS 500h sedan and was styled by CALTY Design Research.
 
Here’s a summary of what Dr. Pratt had to say. If you want to read his full remarks, just click here.
 
Fully autonomous vehicles are just around the corner, right?
 
Highly unlikely, contrary to what you might have read or heard. That’s especially true if you’re talking about Level 5, or Chauffeur, self-driving systems that can pilot a vehicle anywhere, at any time, in any conditions with no driver input.
 
“None of us in the automobile or IT industries are close to achieving this in the near term,” said Pratt. “Level 4, which is full autonomy in a highly restricted environment, has been demonstrated. But bringing it to market on a large scale is a much tougher nut to crack.”
 
Pratt said full autonomy must still clear several hurdles. How do you train a machine to grasp the nuances of the social ballet required to navigate an ever-changing environment as well as or better than a human driver? Perhaps even more challenging, how do you convince the human to trust the machine?
 
“How safe is safe enough for society to accept traffic fatalities at the hands of a machine?” said Pratt. “Historically, humans have shown little tolerance for this.”
 
But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Pratt said TRI is driven by the moral obligation to save as many lives as possible as soon as possible. So, its work on this technology continues, with a sense of urgency.

 
What’s next then?
 
While Chauffeur mode is still the ultimate objective, Pratt said TRI focuses much of its attention these days on Guardian mode. This is where the driver retains full control of the vehicle except when the machine anticipates a pending incident and employs a corrective response in coordination with driver input.
 
The trick, said Pratt, is blending these two forms of control so they peacefully coexist.
 
“Most of the time, the driver feels 100 percent in control,” he said. “However, as the driver begins to reach the edge of a dynamically challenging safety envelope, the envelope begins to work with the human to help nudge them back into alignment within a safe corridor. This envelope is not a discrete on-off switch between the human and the machine. It’s really a near-seamless blend of both, working as teammates, extracting the best input from both.”
 
In other words, Toyota is doubling-down on humans. Contrary to popular belief, they still have an important role to play when it comes to safer driving.
 
Plus, successful deployment of Guardian mode across a wide range of vehicles could help build social acceptance of Chauffeur mode — when it’s ready for the real world. Think of it as a critical stepping stone along the path to a fully autonomous future.
 
“It’s designed to amplify human performance, not replace it,” says Pratt. “That makes it significantly less scary.”
 
What is TRI doing now to help develop this technology?
 
A combination of software simulation, testing with real vehicles on closed courses and testing on the open road.
 
“In a relatively short amount of time, we are testing technologies that will brake and steer and even intentionally accelerate to avoid or mitigate thousands of collisions, injuries and fatalities every year,” said Pratt.
 
Cargo Room -- TRI-P4 takes a major step forward in the integration of its automated driving technology within the context of a fully functional vehicle. That includes reconfiguring the system's computer box, or "brain," vertically against the rear seat transom, freeing up the entire floor of the trunk for hauling cargo.
 

This work will get a major boost this spring with the deployment of the TRI-P4, the latest generation of its test vehicle. Pratt said Platform 4 “is smarter, more agile and more responsive than any of its platform predecessors.”

That’s due in large part to a big step up in computing power that can process more machine learning algorithms in parallel for faster leaning. It also incorporates two additional cameras and two new imaging sensors powered by new chip technology with a higher dynamic range.

A test “platform” is essentially a production vehicle (in this case an LS 500h) that is loaded up with automated driving systems. In addition to its high-tech horsepower, Platform 4 also sets a new standard for aesthetic achievement — integrating the extra hardware more fully within the natural flow of the vehicle’s design.

What’s the bottom line on all of this?

Saving lives. But there could well be another benefit.

“The joy of driving is an inherent and deliberate component of Toyota Guardian,” said Pratt. “It’s not all about safety. It’s also about how a driver feels behind the wheel — safe and secure to enjoy the drive, instead of the ride.”

 
By Dan Miller
 

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