Toyota Says its Guardian Autonomous Driving Technology Will Amplify Human Control, Not Remove it

Toyota Says its Guardian Autonomous Driving Technology Will Amplify Human Control, Not Remove it

Author: Eric Walz   

LAS VEGAS — While many automakers are working on fully autonomous technology that allows a driver to sit back and relax while the vehicle does all of the driving for them, Toyota is taking a different approach, by enhancing the driver's ability and with a suite of advanced safety features to make manual driving much safer. Toyota calls this system "Guardian".

At this week's annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Toyota Research Institute (TRI) CEO Dr. Gill Pratt said TRI has also been working to improve Toyota's Guardian over the past 12 months, making it function as an extension of human senses.

TRI which is based in Silicon Valley, was established in 2015 and is focused on advancing Toyota's research and development of autonomous driving, AI and other advanced mobility technologies.

One of TRI's most significant breakthroughs this year Pratt said, was the creation of "blended envelope control", where Guardian combines and coordinates the skills and strengths of the human driver with an advanced driver assist system (ADAS).

However, as opposed to a fully autonomous driving system, Toyota says that Guardian is being developed to assist with human control of the vehicle, not replacing it with full autonomy that requires no human intervention. This approach makes sense, as many humans are reluctant to give full control of a vehicle to a computer, at least for the foreseeable future.

"We humans have an inherent need for autonomy, which is much stronger than our desire for autonomous cars," Pratt said in a statement. He emphasized that the goal of Guardian is "amplifying, rather than replacing, human ability."

Inspired by Fighter Jets

Toyota says Guardian was inspired by the way that modern fighter jets are flown, where you have a pilot that flies using a joystick, but actually they don't fly the plane directly. Instead, the pilot's intentions are translated by the low-level computerized flight control system, which performs adjustments thousands of times per second to stabilize the aircraft and stay within a specific safety envelope, or flight path.

Toyota is working on bringing this type of aircraft flight control to future vehicles, where the flight path becomes a highway lane instead.

Guardian monitors a 360-degree area around the car at all times. With Toyota Guardian, the driver is meant to be in control of the car, except in those cases where Guardian anticipates or identifies a pending incident and employs a corrective response in coordination with a driver's input.

Suppose a driver sees an obstacle ahead on the road and needs to turn suddenly to the right. The Guardian system can help steer the car to avoid the object and return the car safety to its lane once the obstacle is passed.

TRI opened its press conference at CES with a vivid reenactment of a high-speed three-car crash on California's Interstate 80, where no one was injured. The crash was captured from cameras on a TRI research vehicle that was in the process of collecting road data when it was involved in the crash.

Pratt said that after TRI downloaded data from the incident, they wondered if the accident could have been avoided using Guardian. The answer was "yes".

With the data collected from the actual TRI test vehicle involved in the three-car accident, TRI was able to create and accurate simulation, which was translated into a learning tool for the car to figure out its options to avoid the accident in just milliseconds.

The case was an example of how Guardian might avoid or mitigate a collision for itself, while potentially doing the same for other nearby vehicles; in a way, an "altruistic" Guardian.

Since launching three years ago, TRI has been committed to a two-track development approach to automated driving using both Guardian and its autonomous driving system "Chauffeur".

Chauffeur development focuses on full autonomy, where the human is essentially removed from the driving equation. Whereas Guardian is being developed as an automated safety system, capable of operating with either a human driver, or an autonomous driving system.

Pratt emphasized the importance of not underestimating the difficulty of developing an autonomous Chauffeur system, both technologically and sociologically.

"Technically, how do we train a machine about the social ballet required to navigate through an ever-changing environment, as well as, or better than, a human driver? Sociologically, public acceptance of the inevitable crashes, injuries, and deaths that will occur due to fully autonomous Chauffeur systems may take considerable time." Pratt said in a statement.

Pratt said that "Toyota has a moral obligation to apply automated vehicle technology to save as many lives as possible as soon as possible."

That is why TRI's primary focus over the last year has been to concentrate most of its effort on making Toyota Guardian a smarter machine using AI. For Guardian to learn and get smarter, it must be subjected to difficult and demanding driving scenarios or edge cases, that are simply too dangerous to perform on public roads.

Through continuous refinement, Guardian learns how best to navigate and react to dangerous scenarios, as they unfold.

During Toyota's presentation, Pratt addressed another key capability that makes Toyota Guardian even more evocative.

"We humans have an inherent need for autonomy, which is much stronger than our desire for autonomous cars," said 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 mom 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."

"We think the most important benefit of automated driving, is not about the autonomy of cars," concluded Pratt, "but about the autonomy of people."

For Toyota, hands-on-the-wheel and eyes-on-the-road is first-and-foremost about safety.  But it is also about how a driver feels behind the wheel, remaining safe and secure to enjoy the drive, instead of the ride.

Toyota says it may even share the Guardian technology with other automakers, to make the roads safer for everyone.  

Eric Walz
Eric Walz
Originally from New Jersey, Eric is an automotive and technology reporter specializing in the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley. Eric has over fifteen years of automotive experience and a B.A. in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the automotive industry and beyond. He has worked on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology. Outside of work, Eric likes to travel to new places, play guitar, and explore the outdoors.
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