Aspen Ideas Festival: Toyota VP outlines steps needed for 'automated' driving

Aspen Ideas Festival: Toyota VP outlines steps needed for 'automated' driving

Summary: Ultimately, the roadmap for smarter cars could extend to the intersection and vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

Credit: Rachel King, ZDNet

ASPEN, COLO. -- You need to walk before you can run, and the same concept could be applied to driverless cars.

I sat down for a Q&A with Chris Hostetter, group vice president of strategic planning for Toyota in the United States, on Saturday at the 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival to learn more about how the auto giant is developing smarter technologies for its fleet of vehicles.

Hostetter oversees strategic research, advanced product strategy, environmental vehicle strategy at Toyota's Global Knowledge Center, a virtual university made up of distributors and dealers worldwide for best practices run through solutions.

The fervor around "driverless cars," fueled by Google's own much talked-about prototype, is at the forefront of Toyota's concept car agenda.

But Hostetter pointed out that there are a number of steps that need to be taken before that dream ever becomes a reality.

He outlined what he referred to as "assisted driving," which essentially takes the best technology that can be installed in a car and matches it with the most intelligent resource in the vehicle: the driver.

As Hostetter explained, a vehicle might be able to sense a barrier or a pedestrian nearby, but the driver would be able to recognize better than a computer if the pedestrian changes his or her direction at the last minute.

"If we just try to turn that on and have people sitting in the back seat, is the public really going to want that? Maybe this has to be blended in over time so people can become aware," Hostetter suggested.

Thus, Hostetter described assisted driving as a "partnership," positing that automated driving can't happen until the integrated computer could recognize that 100 percent of the time on its own.

Toyota is investing upwards of $50 million in developing assisted cars, which are being designed and built to be smarter and more capable on their own -- but they can't operate with someone behind the wheel yet.

Thus, Toyota introduced its Collaborative Safety Research Center, which is made up of 15 universities and hospitals working on 26 safety projects to pool and develop upon fundamental knowledge about cognitive behavior, engineering issues, and more.

"We need to involve a community of people in order to achieve these goals because [the technologies] are so new the regulative community doesn't know about it," remarked Hostetter.

Ultimately, Hostetter hinted that the roadmap (pun intended) will extend beyond smarter cars to enabling smart intersection and vehicle-to-vehicle communications in order to prevent collisions, injuries, and fatalities.

Setting technology aside for a moment, Hostetter pointed toward a barrier that might prove much more difficult to surpass: trust.

"If we just try to turn that on and have people sitting in the back seat, is the public really going to want that? Maybe this has to be blended in over time so people can become aware," Hostetter suggested.

Right now, Toyota is already implementing some advanced safety innovations on the Lexus LS sedan, which is already on the market.

As for improved efficiency when it comes to fuel, Toyota also had its FCHV-adv Fuel-Cell Hybrid Vehicle on display in Aspen this past weekend.

Hostetter specified that it is a fuel-cell vehicle that uses hydrogen, and the byproduct is water.

"It's not a combustion process at all. It's a very digital process," Hostetter continued, further describing it as an "improvement on the electric vehicle" because it can go up to 440 miles on a single refill compared to 50 miles on a single charge.

Hostetter asserted that because it only takes four to five minutes to fill a tank, much like at a standard gas station, there is no inconvenience or compromise enforced upon the customer.

What is still needed is the infrastructure, said Hostetter. Referring to it as a "chicken and egg-type" issue, Hostetter admitted there is the question of whether or not there will be enough hydrogen fueling stations when these vehicles are ready for customers to buy.

Toyota reps estimated that there roughly only 20 hydrogen fueling stations in California alone.

Right now, Toyota has rolled out approximately 100 prototypes of this car, with a mass-market launch schedule for mid-2015.

Topics: Mobility, Apps, Emerging Tech, Health, Smartphones

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  • Finally someone talking sense

    It's about time somebody had a few down-to-earth ideas about intelligent cars. The whole driverless car business is beyond stupid. I'll be the first to watch one of these pundits let his car drive him up one of the steep twisty canyon roads near me. I'll watch from a distance as the truck in front of him accidentally drops a mattress on a crowded eight-lane road at 80 MPH. And let's not even waste any time on the hacking and national security issues of trusting our lives to the people who wrote the Swiss-cheese system called Android.

    But a car that helps with parallel parking? A car that beeps when I get too close to a high curb? A car that lets me know about a deer crossing the road just ahead of my lights? Yeah. I can warm up to that.
  • Not So Simple

    I'm not sure if it is Ms. King or Mr. Hostetter that is the problem. The article is not well written (it should have been one article written on each topic) and the quotes from Mr. Hostetter are not really on point. There is so much to consider with driverless cars that one little article or comment cannot do the topic justice. As an example, I would trust a computer monitoring the movements of a pedestrian or deer before I would trust a human to keep up with that data flow and everything else that you have to keep track of while driving. To me, the real challenge is designing a car that can drive itself while navigating on roads around vehicles that are being driven by humans. Driverless car-to-car is "simple" since they can communicate what they are doing. Humans have a strange habit of making (stupid) driving decisions without communicating what is about to happen to anybody. We are just beginning to get "assisted driving" and I am sure the industry will go from there to more advanced assisting before we get mass driverless vehicles. I think the time it is going to take to develop and introduce the technologies necessary for driveless cars will give the general public time to accept the capability.
  • Question...

    Exactly who is it that WANTS automated driving? I can't think of a single person.
    • Well, that's a good question. Here are some answers.

      Well, that's a good question. Here are some answers.

      -Blind people
      -Old people
      -Young people
      -Drunk people
      -Tired people
      -Distracted people
      -People without legs
      -People with mental disabilities
      -Working people who want their wives to pick up the groceries (Only one car? Not a problem - it can drive itself back home!)

      Actually - automated driving changes everything. Anybody can "drive," because the car drives itself.

      A blind person can use a self-driving car. A kid too young to control a conventional car could use a self-driving car. A person with disabilities that prevents them from driving a conventional car could use a self-driving car.

      Basically - everybody who can't drive today for some reason or another may theoretically be able to use a self-driving car.

      A self-driving car could also change the logistics of having a vehicle where you want it, when you want it.

      Let's say you're a couple with only a single car. You go to work. Now your spouse wants to use the car. Right now, the spouse would be stuck without a vehicle. However, with a self-driving car, you could set the car to drive itself back to your house while you're at work, letting your spouse use it. Or, even fancier, the car could have a 3G/4G connection and your spouse could connect to the car remotely and tell it to drive back to the house.

      In addition to all of that - it's gonna lead to some thorny legal issues when they become common.

      -Should we let self-driving cars be driverless?
      -Should we require a licensed driver in the car?
      -Should we somehow "lock" the manual controls so that only licensed drivers can use them?
      -Should automobile manufacturers be required to keep manual controls, or should they be allowed to design self-driving cars without steering wheels and pedals?
      -What kind of safety precautions should be available in an emergency? What happens if the sensors and/or computer encounters something it can't handle?

      This actually changes how driving works at many levels.
    • Who would want a fully automated driving system?

      Your insurance company
      the blind
      the elderly
      the very young
      the intoxicated
      those with a long, exhausting commute
      me for myself, my children, my grandchildren
  • A Digital Process?

    I cannot believe that anyone with a technical education can say that burning hydrogen is "not a combustion process, but a digital process," whatever that means. It is indeed combustion, unless it occurs in a fuel cell, in which case it is oxidation without combustion. And yes, hydrogen burning IS clean, at the site of the VEHICLE. But hydrogen (separated from other elements) is not a fuel that occurs naturally on this planet. It is manufactured by separating it from water, at the cost of ADDING energy, so it is actually a "storage" or "secondary" fuel. If the energy used to produce the hydrogen is from a "clean" source such as a dam, or windmill, or solar panel, the hydrogen is truly clean. Otherwise it is as dirty as the primary energy source (actually, slightly dirtier, since the hydrogen needed to go 100 miles is made with MORE fuel than would carry the vehicle 100 miles; possibly 110 to 200 miles).

    There is one practical drawback to hydrogen fuel in general, and another to hydrogen fuel cells. The most obvious way to store and sell hydrogen is as a compressed gas in a cylinder, but a cylinder strong enough to be safe in case of a crash is very heavy. Another way is "adsorbed" onto the surface of certain metals, but the metal must be heated (which requires battery power to start, just as an IC engine does) in order to drive off the gas at the correct rate. And to replace the engine with a fuel cell, aside from being expensive to build, a fuel cell operates at a high temperature, thus involving a loss of efficiency and a fire hazard.

    Lick these problems and you can have a city full of moving humidifiers!