After having traveled to Silicon Valley, California recently to learn more about Toyota Research Institute (TRI), Toyota Times Editor-in-Chief Teruyuki Kagawa exclaimed: “My view of automated driving has changed.”
Previously, during a visit to the Nürburgring, Kagawa had been unable to hide his negative views of automated driving, asking “Which will you choose, Toyota, automated driving or fun to drive?”, as if they were mutually exclusive of each other. However, after his first experience with automated driving at TRI, he admittedly had fun, something he had not expected.
After hearing that Toyota is also conducting automated driving research back in Japan, Kagawa made the decision to visit the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center, a location in Japan where some of Toyota’s secrets are kept, so he could learn more about what they are researching.
Upon his arrival to the winding test course at Higashi-Fuji Technical Center, Kagawa was greeted by Masayuki Soga, Chief Professional Engineer for the Advanced R&D and Engineering Company, and Kenji Sasaki of the Advanced Vehicle Engineering Development Division. Also present was test driver Hisashi Yabuki, the same test driver who drove Kagawa on the Nürburgring and Shimoyama test courses.
“Mr. Yabuki, I didn’t expect to see you here! Today, I’ve come to report on automated driving,” Kagawa says with surprise.
Mr. Yabuki replies: “Actually, the work we test drivers do is closely connected with this.”
If the job of test drivers is to drive cars, what role do they play in the development of automated driving? Kagawa is intrigued and ready to learn more. Below is a recap of the visit.
Higashi-Fuji is Researching the Ride Comfort of Automated Driving
Knowing now that Toyota has two places researching automated driving, Kagawa’s first question to his hosts in Higashi-Fuji was why the company needed one here and in Silicon Valley. The explanation, it turns out, was quite simple.
About a month ago, when Kagawa visited TRI and met with its CEO, Dr. Gill Pratt, he experienced first-hand the latest in AI technology and robotics. He was taken for a test drive in an automated driving vehicle packed with sensors that were there to help predict the complex movements of other cars. He also saw a robot that was using AI technology to tidy up toys while learning on its own, using machine learning. From Kagawa’s perspective, it was unique insight into what many might consider to be “tomorrow’s future.”
Of course, to him, logic dictated that there is no better place to research new technology than Silicon Valley, where numerous technology companies and some of the best brains in the world can be found.
Then what part of automated driving is being researched at the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center? CPE Soga explained that the Higashi-Fiji Technical Center has the same goal of reducing traffic casualties to zero, but added the following:
- CPE Soga
I believe we have the same goals of creating safe, secure automated driving cars. However, TRI is focused on incorporating what they’ve learned into intelligence, while we, as the manufacturer of automobiles, are more about judging how to move a car, including things like how the car feels when riding in it, how comfortable it is.
“Ride comfort is related to automated driving?” Kagawa looked confused. However, Soga answered emphatically: “You’ll understand once you try it,” and he invited Kagawa to enter the test vehicle.
Focusing more on his comfort and with an eye on the course ahead of him, Kagawa was slow to realize that the driver had already taken his hands off the wheel, meaning that at some point they had switched over to automated driving.
“It’s in automated driving mode already!?” gasped Kagawa.
The car roared around the track at speeds not typically associated with automated driving. Even more intriguing, the vehicle didn’t stick precisely in the middle of the lane, but instead was taking the inside line on corners and accelerating out of them. With smooth shifts of G-forces forwards and backwards, and from side to side, the automated driving felt like an experienced driver driving a sports car.
“The car is driving on its own!” exclaimed Kagawa, fascinated by this driving style, smashing his previous impressions of automated driving.
It was not just about having a smooth ride, of course. Obviously, safety is vital in automated driving, but the smoothness of the ride has the power to give passengers peace of mind. It reminded Kagawa of the feeling of relaxation and confidence he gets when riding in a car driven by a skilled driver. The type of ride when he could just sit back and let them take him wherever they will. Not only did this car have that feeling, it also felt, well, fun.
Soga asked Kagawa, “I think there is a slight feeling of ‘fun’ as we ride as well, wouldn’t you agree?”
To which Kagawa’s reply was instant: “It’s fun! It’s fun!”
“It seems that an automated driving vehicle is ‘fun to drive’ after all.”
Riding in an Automated Driving Vehicle is Like Watching “Acting with Its Own Will”
After arriving back from his ride around the course, Kagawa jumped out and shouted “It ‘moved’ me (emotionally)!”
I was completely wrong about my definition of automated driving, which I saw as just going straight ahead safely and steadily. Instead, this car, with its handling, definitely feels like it has a person behind the wheel.
In theatrical terms, it’s “acting with its own will.”
He described the experience saying that automated driving isn’t a mechanical sort of driving; it was more like it was being driven by a human.
To better understand the difference between an automated driver and a human one, Kagawa took another lap, this time with Soga behind the wheel, a self-proclaimed “ordinary driver.” To Kagawa, the difference between this and automated driving was obvious.
“The first lap didn’t have as strong of G-forces! Automated driving is clearly better than with a human driver.”
When comparing the two later, Kagawa said that the automated driving vehicle made him “fe[el] at ease.”
Of course, what Soga wanted to make clear was that automated driving isn’t just about “peace of mind” through driving “safely,” but it is just as much about “giving passengers peace of mind through the ride’s quality and comfort.” Earlier, when Soga talked with President Toyoda, the phrase “You can trust home-madeonigiri (rice balls)” came up.
What does driving a car have in common with “home-made onigiri”?
Some time ago a survey was conducted wherein the results showed that about 70 percent of participating children were able to correctly identify their own parent’s driving even while blindfolded. Those same children reported that they felt peace of mind from such driving. It is the feeling of “peace of mind” that both a parent’s
This is where the test drivers come in, according to Soga. Their skilled driving is able to offer peace of mind, so incorporating this into automated driving will create the sort of technology one would expect from Toyota.
Upon review of the data, it became clear just how important the test drivers are: test driver Yabuki’s “skilled driving” could easily be seen. Shown a series of graphs, Kagawa could see the various G forces and how they changed. The smaller the circles on the graph, the more stable the G force sizes and changes. In other words, the smaller the circle, the smoother the driving and ride for the passengers. Looking at all data from different drivers, there was a great amount of variation; many had large, erratic circles on the graphs. By contrast, test driver Yabuki’s data (bottom-right result) was a series of small circles centering in the middle. It was easy to see the difference. Also apparent was just how much closer the data from the automated driving (2nd from top on far left side) that Kagawa just experienced was getting to Yabuki’s level.
As they perform their research, those working on automated driving at Higashi-Fuji have to consider things like: What is the best timing to turn the steering wheel? To press the brakes? To open the throttle?
The thorough data collection, analysis, and implementation of the generated algorithms into vehicles that has come from Yabuki’s driving is what allowed Kagawa to experience the “skilled automated driving” that compelled him to say it felt like the car had its own will.
“When I had my first ride-along at the Nürburgring, we were easily going 200 km/h, but I felt at ease,” Kagawa said, as he thought about Yabuki’s driving skills.
Next, Kagawa visited the Advanced Technical Skills Institute Division, the division to which Yabuki belongs. There, he saw a room full of parts that all looked the same to him.
Test drivers will often take the wheel of a car that is claimed to be set up perfectly, at least theoretically, and sense that something’s off. Discovering these slight variances through human sensitivities and repeated driving can lead to the test drivers swapping out parts. No matter how much technology advances, humans are called upon to make the final analysis and decision based on humans driving and sense. This process is a vital part of making ever-better cars.
Previously, while visiting the Nürburgring, Kagawa told Yabuki that “If we get automated driving, you’re not going to be needed anymore.” However, after experiencing the automated driving at the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center, using algorithms that reflected Yabuki’s sensitivities, Kagawa experienced a complete change of opinion.
“I would like to apologize,” he said to Yabuki, admitting his surprise at just how much the test drive was needed for automated driving to be successful.
The Wheels of Automated Driving are Logic and Sensitivity
As previously reported in the article and video about TRI in Silicon Valley (https://youtu.be/2SW4dgc6Vp8), the research teams are working to determine how to analyze a vehicle’s surroundings accurately and make the best judgments about them. In other words, it is argued that it is a human’s eyes and brain that make rational decisions. The same concept carries over to automated driving.
At Higashi-Fuji Technical Center, where the main pursuit is to give passengers peace of mind, it follows that great value is given to the sensitivities of test drivers and driving with the human touch.
The combination of the work being done at both TRI in Silicon Valley and at Higashi Fuji Technical Center will provide both of the proverbial wheels of the car, one focused on developing intelligent technology, the other focused on tuning the technology, taking into consideration the need for human comfort in accepting autonomous vehicles in the future.
In Part Two, Editor-in-Chief Kagawa gets more experience with automated driving that goes beyond his expectations!