While much of the media attention around autonomous vehicle technology has been focused on fully self-driving cars, consumers shouldn't expect cars that act like chauffeurs any time soon.
The vast majority of mainstream vehicles adopting autonomous driving features will be controlled by advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) or "guardian angels" that learn over time, Gil Pratt, CEO Toyota Research Institute, told reporters and analysts last week.
Speaking at the New England Motor Press Association Technology Conference at MIT, Pratt said that 30,000 motor vehicle fatalities occur in the U.S. each year. That number may seem high, but as a whole, U.S. drivers are excellent at avoiding crashes.
So, instead of taking the wheel from drivers' hands, as a fully autonomous vehicle would do, auto makers are more focused on assisting drivers for years to come.
"Despite the fact that there are 30,000 fatalities in the U.S. per year, driving in the U.S. is extraordinarily safe per mile," Pratt said. "It turns out we drive a lot in the U.S. So if you work out fatalities per mile, there's one fatality per 100 million miles [driven] in the U.S."
According to a recent poll, the overwhelming majority of U.S. drivers don't want fully autonomous vehicles. The online survey conducted by the University of Michigan revealed that 37.2% of drivers were "very concerned" about riding in a completely self-driving vehicle, while 66.6% were "very or moderately concerned."
The most frequent preference by those surveyed was for no self-driving technology (45.8%), followed by partially self-driving (38.7%), with completely self-driving being preferred by only 15.5% of respondents.
Earlier this year, Toyota announced a six-person tech team to head up its new Toyota Research Institute (TRI), with the objective of making cars safer and ultimately incapable of crashing.
Pratt referred to fully autonomous driving technology, like the kind Google is testing at various regions around the country, as artificially intelligent chauffeurs.
"If you love to drive, the idea of a chauffeur is not fun," Pratt said. "Driver skills are ignored with a chauffeur; with guardian angel technology, you're augmenting human driving skills."
Guardian angel technology would be able to learn over time, even picking up on user's driving habits so that it could spot trends that could lead to accidents and advise the driver to make corrections that would prevent a crash from occurring.
Pratt pointed out that road conditions, sunlight, even a box suddenly falling from the truck in front of you could thwart a fully autonomous vehicle. Simply put, self-driving technology is still far from perfect.
But fully autonomous driving technology needs to be perfect before it can be rolled out en masse, said Pratt, a former MIT professor who, prior to joining Toyota, headed the Robotics Challenge at the U.S. military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
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