Self-driving race heats up at LA Auto Show
Los Angeles — The traffic on California freeways outside the Los Angeles Convention Center is relentless. So it’s fitting that automakers are thinking big at the Los Angeles Auto Show about autonomous cars that relieve driving stress.
But while the industry agrees on an autonomous, self-driving future, the paths that automakers are taking to get there vary from Audi to Tesla to General Motors to Toyota.
Audi made headlines this week with the U.S. introduction of its flagship A8 sedan with Traffic Jam Assist, the first so-called Level 3 autonomous system that lets the car take full control from the pilot. It will drive itself under 37 mph, allowing drivers to disengage from the car to check email, text and engage in other distractions.
Cadillac debuted its similar “SuperCruise” system this fall on the brand’s flagship CT6 sedan. It will also be hands-free, but is considered a Level 2 system because its still requires driver attention on a defined network of divided, limited-access highways. GM’s Chevy division is testing a fleet of autonomous Bolt EVs equipped with LIDAR sensors that allow fully-autonomous, Level 4 capability.
Tesla has been the most aggressive proponent of a self-driving cars. It’s outfitted the Model S sedan with an array of camera, radar and sonar hardware augmented by regular, over-the-air software updates.
And then there’s Toyota. In contrast to America’s colossus GM, the Japanese giant has kept a low profile. But with the LA show it’s starting to show its hand.
Lexus, Toyota’s premium brand, introduced the latest version of its Lexus Safety Sense system, LSS+A, on Tuesday to the media. Building on previous systems that automatically brake to mitigate impact with other vehicles or pedestrians, LSS+A takes a big step toward autonomy by steering and braking to a stop to avoid impact. The Level 4-like feature only works when the driver is disengaged.
It’s Toyota’s mantra that self-driving cars should be about safety first. But the modest LSS+A masks a larger, more aggressive autonomy program.
“They are creating a path to much more advanced autonomous-driving technology,” says Kelley Blue Book analyst Karl Brauer.
He’s referring to the confluence of two Toyota autonomy streams by 2020: Toyota’s “Mobility Teammate” hands-free driving system for consumer cars and a fully autonomous ride-sharing service for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games for which Toyota is the exclusive transportation partner.
“If Toyota had the ability to demonstrate at the Olympics to attendees — and to the watching world — how much easier they made it to get around the Olympic venue with autonomous technology, that’s a huge opportunity,” says Brauer.
If Toyota’s product plans have been less ambitious than players like GM and Tesla, its two-track autonomy business model is one of the industry’s clearest.
Speaking at the AutoMobility LA tech conference that coincided with the show, Gill Pratt, director of the U.S.-based Toyota Research Institute that’s dedicated to autonomous driving, explained the two tracks referred to internally as “Chauffeur” and “Guardian.”
Chauffeur-related technologies lead down the path to full, so-called Level 4 mobility that will be on display at the Tokyo Olympics. Driverless Olympic Village shuttles will use “Mobility Teammate” — Toyota’s trademark, urban autonomy system.
The system mirrors what GM, Chrysler, and Volvo are testing with ride-sharing services.
“Increase productivity for mobility as a service is the major motivation for why so much money is being spent in this space right now,” says Pratt who helped create TRI in late 2015.
Manned driving services today costs $1.50 a mile according to a Deutsche Bank analysis. Remove the driver and the cost plummets to 85 cents. That’s a whopping 65 cents per mile of available profit to be made.
“It’s hard for anyone to make money right now (in the ride-share business),” says Pratt. “The potential is, if you don’t have drivers you become very profitable. The ride-share companies are in it for their life. They know that the first one that manages to eliminate the cost, they will make tremendous profits.”
As will the manufacturer that can supply them hundreds of thousands of vehicles.
But Pratt says there is money to be made in the Guardian space, too — even though its motivation is more safety than bottom line. Guardian-type technology is what the Lexus LS500 uses to shadow drivers should they encounter trouble.
“Guardian is also driven by sales, particularly as society ages,” explains Pratt. “Older people tend not to drive very much, and not to buy cars very much.”
How do manufacturers like Toyota extend the auto-buying years? Sell seniors safer, semi-autonomous vehicles that keep them out of trouble. Pratt says Guardian-type systems will also drive more sales to young people.
“If I want to buy a car for my 16-year-old, I want a car that won’t crash. So that will boost sales,” he says.
There are many obstacles to autonomy. Waymo CEO John Krafcik points to the challenge of cameras seeing through bad weather. “That’s why we’re testing in Phoenix, not Michigan,” he says of Waymo’s real-world autonomy program.
But Toyota’s Pratt has no doubt that manufacturers will get there and soon. There is too much money at stake.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.