Alex Kreetzer January 8, 2019

Using on board cameras, sensors and 3D animation, Toyota Research Institute (TRI) attended CES this year to show the audience how its new Guardian software is able to reduce the chance of accidents by assisting humans, not replacing them. The company showed a reenacted three-car crash on a California Interstate, where no one was injured, using video and 3D animation (below).

“We know what happened because we were there, in the thick of it,” said Dr. Gill Pratt, TRI CEO. “Our test vehicle was travelling at freeway speed in manual mode with its autonomy mode disabled as it gathered data at the many tunnels and bridges in the San Francisco bay area. After we downloaded data from the incident, we asked ourselves; Could this crash have been mitigated, or avoided altogether by a future Toyota Guardian automated safety system? We believe the answer is yes.”

From its beginning three years ago, TRI has been committed to a two-track development approach to automated driving. Its on-going chauffeur development focuses on full-autonomy, where the human is essentially removed from any driving functions, either completely or within restricted areas. However, Toyota’s new Guardian technology on display in Las Vegas is taking a different approach, amplifying the human control of the vehicle instead of replacing it. Through this approach, the driver in question is meant to be in control of the car at all times, except in cases where the technology anticipates or identifies a potential incident and responses in coordination with the driver’s input.

This is a very interesting approach from Toyota, showing that fully-autonomous technology, certainly for the near-future, may not be the best solution during the teething stage. The most significant breakthrough this year for TRI is the creation of a blended envelop control, where the Guardian technology combines and coordinates the skills and strengths of the human and the machine. According to TRI, the system was inspired and informed by the way that modern fighter jets are flown, where a pilot flies using the stick, but actually doesn’t fly the plane directly. Instead, their intent is translated by the low-level flight control system, thousands of times a second to stabilise the aircraft and stay within a specific safety envelope. This helps create a seamless blend of both the human and autonomous controls, as the two work together to exploit the best characteristics from each side.

Akio Toyoda, President of Toyota Motor Corporation, announced at CES last year that the Guardian system will become standard equipment on all Toyota e-Palette platforms that the company will build for the Mobility as a Service (MaaS) market. By doing so, MaaS fleet buyers can use any autonomous system they choose, with Guardian acting as a belt-and-suspender redundancy for any self-driving Chauffeur system. This shows great progress for the technology.

What is most interesting – and most important – about this technology is that it overcomes the difficulty of developing a fully-autonomous system, both technologically and sociologically. Ultimately, it is impossible to train a machine to have a social understanding that allows the vehicle to navigate through an ever-changing environment as well as, or better than, a human driver. For at least the near-future, machines will be unable to attain the same instinctual behaviour as humans. Due to this, it is important for the industry to be patient and allow organic growth in an aggressively-evolving world.

And this is what makes Toyota’s Guardian so smart. The company’s primary focus for 2018 was to concentrate its efforts on teaching the system new processes, putting it through difficult and demanding driving scenarios. On closed courses, the system was put through its paces in order to understand the best solutions to dangerous scenarios, analysing the best way to assist the driver.

“We humans have an inherent need for autonomy, which is much stronger than our desire for autonomous cars,” adds Pratt. “It’s about the sheer delight of mobility when a child first learns to stand-up and make its way across a room without the help of mum or dad. And it is the joy of just going for a drive, behind the wheel of a car that can accelerate, brake and turn as if it is an extension of your body.”

Although safety should always come first when it comes to driving, it is also important that the driver enjoys their time behind the wheel. It seems that Toyota has identified this, intertwining these two characteristics and following its philosophy of using self-driving capabilities to assist humans, not replace them.

“We think the most important benefit of automated driving, is not about the autonomy of cars,” says Pratt, “but about the autonomy of people.”

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