Not so fast on self-driving cars, Toyota boss cautions after Paralympian hit

Industry

TOKYO — When its newfangled e-Palette people mover hit a visually impaired judo wrestler in the athlete village for the 2020 Paralympic Games last month, Toyota proposed a rather ironic safety solution for a supposedly self-driving vehicle: more humans and more human oversight.

The boxcarlike shuttle buses — a public display of Toyota’s interest in autonomous vehicles — each got a second safety operator. And the number of crossing guards directing traffic and protecting pedestrians was more than tripled along the e-Palette’s route.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda also quickly apologized for the accident and just as quickly issued a reality check about the rudimentary state of today’s autonomous driving technology. “I don’t think it’s at all realistic yet that self-driving cars can travel normally on ordinary roads,” he said afterward.

Toyoda’s appraisal may be a buzzkill for an industry that’s furiously pursuing a new wave of futuristic technologies. But his candid circumspection also highlights a gradual transformation for the long-serving Toyota chief: Toyoda is emerging as something of an industry elder statesman and as a voice for caution amid the global stampede to daring new technologies.

While the mantra of upstarts from Silicon Valley and beyond has been “move fast and break things,” Toyoda has sounded a more contrarian note of “not so fast.”

Speaking in a YouTube video after the e-Palette accident, Toyoda questioned the industry’s race toward Level 5 fully autonomous driving. In fact the e-Palette, despite being designed with the ability to run at Level 4, was operating at only Level 2 in the athlete village.

“There is this pressure on carmakers to be the first to release Level 5 vehicles,” he said. “But I have been saying that we should not jump onto such a bandwagon.”

The self-driving e-Palette is guided by five lidar sensors and two cameras, one in the front and one in the rear. But in an abundance of caution, Toyota’s engineers limited the bus’ cruising speed to a crawl of just 1.25 mph and required a manual start to accelerate after stopping at intersections.

It was not the first urging of caution from the Toyota chief.

He also has attempted to bring the industry back to earth on carbon neutrality, publicly pitching the idea that, rather than pursuing a tunnel-visioned drive to a battery-electric future, the global industry should take a multipronged path to reducing emissions, with a mix of new and old powertrains.

Such a cautious approach can be easy to dismiss, given the hype over new startups and new technologies by both the industry and Wall Street. But the 65-year-old scion of Toyota Motor Corp.’s founding family speaks from experience and authority. Toyoda has been at the helm since 2009 — longer than nearly every other serving automaker CEO. He has buffed his namesake company into one of industry’s biggest, more reliable profit engines. And in the process, Toyoda has become a symbol for a kinder, gentler approach to industry revolution.

The Toyota accident was one of two autonomous-technology driving mishaps that occurred in late August. The other involved Tesla’s Model 3.

In Toyota’s Aug. 26 scrape, Toyoda apologized the next day and tried to meet the Paralympian, who reportedly was knocked over and suffered a bump on the head. A Paralympic Games spokeswoman said the athlete got a “comprehensive checkup” and that no external injuries were found. Toyota issued a statement and suspended e-Palette service. Then, after devising a litany of safety improvements, it resumed operation the following week.

In Tesla’s case, which happened Aug. 28, a Model 3 reportedly using the Autopilot driver-assist system ran into a parked Florida Highway Patrol car that had stopped on the side of an interstate to help a disabled vehicle, which was also hit. The Model 3 narrowly missed the trooper.

Tesla’s response was muted, even as U.S. auto safety regulators had opened an investigation into the California automaker’s Autopilot mode following a series of crashes that resulted in 17 injuries and one death. The probe covers some 765,000 Tesla vehicles.

The difference in reaction highlights Toyoda’s outlook.

“There are no set rules when it comes to autonomous driving,” Toyoda said. “That’s the reality we have now. It is not just about making vehicles safe. A safe traffic flow consists of infrastructure, drivers and carmakers. These three parties need to work as one to make a safe traffic flow happen. Autonomous driving rules need to be made in line with the reality on the ground.”

Toyoda learned the hard way about erring on the side of caution.

Soon after he took the helm, Toyota was hammered by accusations that its vehicles were capable of dangerous unintended acceleration, a product crisis that bludgeoned the company’s reputation and led to millions of vehicles being recalled. Toyoda himself was called before Congress to explain the mess.

Today, the automaker strikes a more prudent tone and strives to protect its image as a company renowned for safety, quality and reliability.

“Toyota has to be more cautious — its brand and reputational risk is much higher,” said Takaki Nakanishi, head auto analyst at the Nakanishi Research Institute. “That is part of Toyota’s philosophy, strategy and corporate culture. It’s too costly to lose that reputation.”

But the flip side of that caution is the perception that Toyota is lagging behind its competitors. Critics pillory Japan’s biggest automaker for being slow on the industry’s two all-important new battlefronts — autonomous driving and battery-electric vehicles.

Toyota began offering Level 2 automated driving only this year and only in two top-tier offerings: the flagship Lexus LS 500h and the niche Toyota Mirai fuel cell sedan. By contrast, domestic rival Honda Motor Co. already has a Level 3 system operating in Japan, albeit under limited conditions.

And in August, environmental group Sierra Club made Toyota the sole target of a research report that blasted the erstwhile pioneer of hybrid vehicle technology for falling behind in electric vehicles. It painted Toyota as an enemy of clean cars as competitors zoom ahead in EVs.

In fact, Toyota hasn’t abandoned autonomous driving or EVs. But it often takes a different tack. For instance, while rivals market driver-assist systems with hyperbolic names that promise “full self-driving,” Toyota prefers to use the term “automated.” Its advanced technology subsidiary, Woven Planet, has been making acquisitions to ramp up its software and technology development faster. But the venture has the simpler end goal of making cars safer — not necessarily self-driving.

In electric vehicles, Toyota will kick off a new bZ-badged subbrand next year with the introduction of the bZ4X crossover. Six more bZ entries will then come to market as part of its bid to deliver a global portfolio of 15 dedicated EVs, including a pickup.

Honda, Jaguar, General Motors, Ford, Mini and Volvo are among rivals making their portfolios EV-oriented. Toyota will instead balance its lineup with hybrids and even hydrogen-powered offerings — and while that covers fuel cells, Toyota is also developing an entirely different technology that burns hydrogen in combustion engines.

Toyota’s executives are keenly aware that the transition is tricky. The automaker needs to keep selling profitable cars while venturing into vehicle systems that still seem ahead of their time. Analysts, meanwhile, say Toyota is big enough and rich enough to set its own pace in this new auto era.

“Toyota’s ramp-up plan is gradual,” said Tatsuo Yoshida, senior auto analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence in Tokyo. “It has the money, people and resources to run faster than others when the right time finally comes. A realistic approach is key.”

And Toyoda — a longtime racer who styles himself as the company’s master driver — has his own assessment for just how far autonomous driving still has to go.

“I am always in this fight — my own real driving versus autonomous driving,” Toyoda said. “I don’t think autonomous driving has reached the level of my driving technique yet. Currently, the level of autonomous driving is on par with good beginner drivers.”

Naoto Okamura contributed to this report.

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