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Lexus is one step closer to making an uncrashable car
THIS is a car that was shaped by a chance encounter between Akio Toyoda, the chairman of Toyota, and a paralympian who had lost her legs in a car accident.
As part of a long-term goal of eliminating car crashes by 2050, Lexus is now taking its first steps towards removing the need for drivers altogether. 1.3 million people are killed in car crashes around the world every year, and Lexus engineers say human error remains the main reason for most accidents. Eliminate the need to drive, and you eliminate the crashes.
But don't cut your driving licence in half just yet.
If Lexus' progress is anything to go by, autonomous driving is more likely to arrive one feature at a time than to appear suddenly in a machine that's ready to take you to work all by itself.
The latest self-drive feature from Toyota's upmarket division is a driver support system it calls Lexus CoDrive. It enables the new LS, its flagship model, to follow a car in front of it automatically using radar sensors. It also has cameras that scan the road for lane markings, thus allowing the car to warn a driver who is about to stray over the line.
Such features are already available in cars here from the likes of, among others, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo. But Lexus CoDrive adds one unusual twist: hold the turn signal stalk halfway down in a given direction, and the car can switch lanes by itself.
During a brief drive on the highways outside the port town of Yokohama, The Business Times tried the system on a new Lexus LS 500h. Meant to aid expressway driving, the system is first engaged when you activate the Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, which lets the Lexus sync its speed with that of the car ahead. Once you feel like overtaking, you merely hold the turn signal down until the indicators flash, and if the car senses that traffic is clear, it executes a smooth lane change, steering itself automatically.
Drivers are meant to keep their hands on the wheel, but I found it impossible to resist the novelty of letting it go and watching the steering wheel move by itself, as if nudged by an unseen spirit.
If the Lexus senses another car in the way, it sounds a warning and refuses to execute the move. It also abandons the manoeuvre if another driver suddenly rushes to fill the lane you were trying to merge into, hence the importance of keeping your hands on the wheel.
Yet, the Lane Change Assist (LCA) system feels more like a party trick than a genuinely useful feature. Changing lanes is more about paying attention to what other drivers around you are doing, after all; the actual steering movement demands little skill from the driver. Perhaps that's why the system is only on sale in Japan for now, where drivers are invariably polite.
But LCA is just part of a growing suite of assistance systems in Lexus' cars. The new LS also has a sensor that prevents you from accelerating into a wall, say, during parking. It can also sense if an obstacle is behind it, and would brake to a halt automatically to keep you from reversing over a child standing behind the car.
It can even track a pedestrian's movements, and brake itself to a halt or steer around a dozy jaywalker who steps out in front of you if need be.
According to Lexus, four situations account for the majority of accidents: a rear-end collision with another vehicle, crashing into a pedestrian, an accident due to lane deviation and a car-to-car crash at intersections.
LCA, radar cruise control and the other systems are part of a bundle that Lexus calls "Safety System + A", which is designed to avoid all four crash scenarios or mitigate their consequences.
But they are also a small step towards the self-driving car. By 2020 Lexus intends to make a system it calls "Highway Teammate" available. That will allow the driver to disengage entirely from driving on expressways, resuming control elsewhere.
And by the "early 2020s", says Yoshioki Sawa, the president of Lexus International, an "Urban Teammate" function will go on sale that will allow Lexus cars to pilot themselves on ordinary roads.
Self-driving technology is not just intended to make life easier for commuters, but safer. At an investor conference in September, Mr Toyoda admitted that he once found the prospect of autonomous cars "boring".
But an encounter with paralympian Miki Matheson changed his mind. "We had just announced our sponsorship of the Olympics and Paralympics, and she told me that it moved her to reconsider her anger toward cars and (she) said maybe something good could happen," he said. "It was then that I realised how important autonomy could be. Maybe accidents like hers and the suffering involved could be completely eliminated."
While systems like LCA still require the driver to hold the wheel for now, as far as Toyota is concerned, the sooner you can let go altogether, the better.