The debate over whether technology is changing the world for good or bad is unlikely to ever be definitively won by either camp. However, few would argue that technological advances that promise traffic-related deaths dropping from 1.3 million a year to zero could be considered as anything but a positive development. That’s exactly what Gill Pratt, chief executive of the Toyota Research Institute, believes will be the result of the impending transition to driverless cars.
Using the analogy of two iconic photographs of New York’s Fifth Avenue, one taken in 1905 and one in 1913, Pratt believes that this technology-based traffic utopia could happen much more quickly than any of us imagine. Talking at an open doors presentation at Toyota’s Brussels R&D centre, Pratt demonstrated how quickly the age of the automobile manifested itself in central New York. The 1905 image shows Fifth Avenue’s traffic to be predominantly horse-drawn with one lone car in frame. In the 1913 fast forward, the street is full of cars and not a horse in sight.
As soon as 2020, Toyota and Japanese peers such as Nissan and Honda plan to have ‘Level 2 autonomy’ vehicles driving around the Olympic Games. By 2025, ‘Level 4 autonomy’ vehicles operating themselves almost entirely without human intervention are expected to be normal in cities such as London and New York. European and U.S. car making giants such as Volkswagen, BMW and Fiat Chrysler are are also hugely invested in the ‘driverless’ technology race, often in partnership with big tech companies. A partnership between BMW, Intel and Mobileye has targeted having a fleet of around 40 self-driving BMW cars on the road by the end of this year.
However, bringing the technology required for a future driverless reality is still a work in progress, though the big car makers are harnessing some of the world’s brightest minds in the pursuit. Toyota’s Brussels R&D department has partnered with six European universities. Cambridge’s engineering department is leading semantic and temporal segmentation research for the new Lexus LS while UCL’s leading cognitive psychology expert Nilli Lavie is working on the AI that will be required for driverless cars to ‘think’ like a human driver in anticipating situations. Add computer vision expert Luc van Gool of Belgium’s KU Leuven University and his work on an ‘automotive brain’ providing constant 360-degree attention and the depth of the technological innovation going into driverless cars starts to become clear.
Despite the complexity of the technology requirements, Toyota and their peers are making fast progress. The bigger obstacle to a driverless, safer future for our roads is more likely to be adapting legal and insurance frameworks. However, with 35% of teenage deaths in the U.S the result of road accidents and 54% of traffic-related fatalities in Japan involving the over-65s in an ageing population, the prospect of new, technology-inspired age of road safety is an enticing one.
Driverless Car Autonomy Levels:
Level 1 driver assistance
Speed, steering or parking controls assist the driver
Level 2 partial automation
Vehicle can acceleration, brake and make lane changes
Level 3 conditional automation
Vehicle can decide when to accelerate, brake or change lane
Level 4 high automation
Driving and parking automated by driver still at controls and can intervene
Level 5 full automation
Full automation with all humans passengers