I was Toyota’s autonomous drive test dummy, and I am alive to write this

Weapons free

Car, you are on your own

The car beeps as we go through a toll-gate in Ariake, an artificial island town in Tokyo. Cars usually beep when going through toll gates in Japan, they yelp as inordinate amounts of money are deducted from your account. This time, a screen pronounces “ready.” The driver next to me pushes a little button on the steering wheel, and he does what we were told never to do: he takes his hands off the wheel. The car is steered by a robot, I am autonomously driven. The hands will not return until we are through another toll-gate, and down the off-ramp.

Koibuchi

Koibuchi

End of last year, I challenged Tesla to a public hat-eating if their Model D can change lanes without involving the driver. I gave them a year to put words into action. My confidence that I wouldn’t need to upset my stomach with a hat came from a Toyota engineer, who assured me that a car needs to be able to look in all directions if it wants to replace the driver. Ken Koibuchi, General Manager of Intelligent Vehicle Development at Toyota, said that “currently, there is no radar on the market that can achieve that with the required form factor and cost.” Today, I met Koibuchi again. I also sat in a car that changed lanes all by itself, no hands on the wheel, or even on the blinker stalk, and I am alive to write this. Tesla’s trouble: The car was made by Toyota.

Toll-gate. Ready to let the bot drive. (That's $15 to the next toll-gate down the road, in those undervalued yen)

Toll-gate. Ready to let the bot drive. (That’s $15 to the next toll-gate down the road, in those undervalued yen)

We are in downtown Tokyo, and the traffic is thick as usual on a Tuesday afternoon. The not-so-freeway is heavy with trucks heading for Tokyo’s ports. The car is a white Lexus GS, and it is unfazed. Start and end of the journey have been entered into the navigation computer. The passing through the toll-gate has unlocked the (this time real) auto-pilot. The driver hands control to the robot with the button on the steering wheel.

Tokyo rush hour

Tokyo rush hour

The Lexus threads its way through the rush-hour traffic as if it is a shuttle in one of Toyota’s early automatic looms. When there is time to change lanes, the car does that, on its own, no blinker stalk needs to be touched, no driver needs to look over the shoulder and give the all-clear. The car is studded with eight sensor packages that combine high-resolution millimeter RADAR, LIDAR, cameras, and stuff that is still under wraps. The sensors give the car a constant 360 degree situational awareness, and the hat will remain uneaten, because the Tesla car can’t watch its behind.

Change lanes, no hands

Change lanes, no hands

Toyota calls the tech “Mobility Teammate,” something that shows how the company carefully feels its way from driver-assist gadgets to robot cars. In Teammate, the computer advanced to a full-scale partner. Given enough experience on the robot’s part, even a cautious Toyota will eventually let him drive himself.

Bot drives

Bot drives

I always loved to be chauffeured, and I like the idea of being driven by twins, a driver in the flesh, and a computerized clone. When people are at the wheel, I sometimes am scared. Today, I am not worried at all. The human and the robot driver exude confidence, the robot’s driving style is smooth and poised. On-ramp to off-ramp, the human driver could eat, text his girlfriends, or poke his nose. Mannered Japanese he is, he does neither, and he keeps his hands in his lap in a strange yoga pose. Actually, he already looks a bit like a bot. The bot is similarly mannered: As a car approaches a bit fast from the rear, the bot puts on his blinker, and moves into the slow lane. If the man in the fast lane wants a ticket, the bot won’t be in his way.

Press event dry-run

Along with my friend Martin Koelling of Germany’s Handelsblatt, and Hans Greimel of Automotive News, I was used by Toyota as a test dummy. In about three weeks, journalists from the U.S. and Europe will be jetted into Tokyo to see the motor show, and they will experience the same automated driving as we did today. Today was a dry-run. Toyota takes a great risk, considering what would happen if something happens, with the world’s top auto scribes in the car. Don’t get excited, nothing will happen.

Greimel inspects bulge

Greimel inspects bulge

As far as commercialization of autonomous driving goes, also not much will happen for a few years. Back at Ariake, Ken Koibuchi tells me that the tech I tested today won’t be on the market before 2020, because that’s how long it takes a responsible company to test a quantum-leap like that, and that’s how long it will take to produce the still experimental sensor arrays in the required form factor and cost. Since I checked on that sensor last year, it already has slimmed down its size. From afar, the Lexus GS looks like a normal car, no rotating coffee-pot on the roof. Getting a bit closer, one notices the sensor under the rear-view mirror, and bulges over the c-pillar in the back. For a production car, those will have to go.

Prototype sensor

Prototype sensor

The road to autonomous driving is programmed into the navigation systems, and it is quite a distance. Cars will go from relatively simple adaptive cruise control, lane keeping, and automatic parking to freeway driving, and they will finally master the big test: autonomous driving in city traffic. Rumors in Tokyo have it that Nissan will want to upstage Toyota, and demonstrate autonomous city driving to its group of foreign journalists during Tokyo Motor Show. Even then, it will be a long way from prototype to final product that is safe to sell, something Elon Musk is just learning the hard way.

I ask Koibuchi whether he’s worried about being disrupted by Google. “People focus a bit too much on the computer,” he says. “For an autonomous car, you also need a car.”