- we got a demonstration of toyota and lexus's new teammate driver-assistance system.
- it allows for hands-free driving on certain freeways.
- teammate will be offered in the u.s. this fall on the 2022 lexus ls500h.
nothing reveals toyota's conservative approach to self-driving technology more than the name it has given its first advanced level 2 system. unlike automakers that describe their systems as super or some sort of automatic pilot, toyota and lexus have gone with a quieter name: teammate.
that doesn't mean this driver-assistance system isn't as capable as cadillac's supercruise, for example, but it does hint at how careful toyota is being as it slowly introduces cars that can (barely, for now) drive themselves. similar to gm’s supercruise and ford’s upcoming bluecruise, toyota’s new system allows for extended periods of hands-free driving on limited-access highways.
when teammate debuts in the u.s. market in select 2022 lexus ls500h models with all-wheel drive this fall, it will have two components: advanced drive and advanced park. we were able to test the driving portion of the system during near toyota's north american headquarters in plano, texas.
how it works
activating advanced drive is similar to engaging cruise control. when the car is on a limited-access highway—the only kinds of roads it can operate on for now—the driver information screen briefly displays "vehicle position initializing." then, once positioned, the "radar ready" message in the driver information screen changes to say "advanced drive ready." then the display completely changes to show digital representations of the surrounding traffic. it also notifies the the driver to either hold the steering wheel (if there's a grey color scheme) or to go hands-free (when the screen turns blue).
as the name suggests, teammate is constantly checking in with the human driver to make sure they are paying attention and ready to take control of the vehicle again. the colors on the screen are the most obvious signal, but a voice also announces when certain things turn on or off. if you input a destination, the navigation system joins the team to provide countdown counters on the screen when, for example, you're a few miles away from your exit, giving you plenty of time to switch back to being a driver again. there are audible, visual and physical indicators to tell you when to take control, with the seat belt tugging your torso as a last resort to get your attention. it all takes some getting used to.
"i don't know if it's a full re-learning," derek caveney, executive engineer for toyota motor north america r&d, who helped develop the system, told c/d. "but it is a system where you're becoming more of a supervisor rather than an operator."
in non-emergency situations, teammate targets a minimum four-second handover time for when the driver has to resume control. "that type of transition, we believe, is very safe and allows the driver to become reengaged fully before having to be in control," he said.
toyota believes that this reengagement is important. if you're not actively driving, your mind can wander. this is why advanced drive will not allow the driver to go hands-free indefinitely. at some point in its operation—caveney wouldn't be more precise than to say that the upper limit is "tens of minutes"—teammate will ask the driver to grab hold of the wheel again for a few seconds before going back to hands-free mode.
"the idea there is we can't really understand the mental state of the driver," he said. "we can see their visual state, where they're looking, … but we don't know what they're thinking, so we ask them to touch the steering wheel just to make sure that they're aware of the warning we're giving them, so we can build that relationship between the car and the driver."
getting the car to automatically change lanes on a somewhat busy texas highway requires more than just moving the turn signal. even when operating in hands-free mode, the car requires you to glance at the side mirrors to confirm that there's nothing in the way if you want the car to shift lanes. the system of course has its own sensors, but it wants your human input as well.
lots of hardware
the first iteration of teammate uses a suite of eight cameras and five radars, plus a laser, to gather information. some of these sensors are shared with conventional driver-assistance technologies. there are three forward-facing camera packages: a stereo camera to calculate distance, a mono camera to look for lane markers and a telescopic lens that looks to the horizon for other vehicles, and also four panoramic cameras on the sides to also scan for lane markers. the eighth camera is the infrared lens that sits above the steering column and monitors the driver.
the five radar sensors include a long-range, forward-facing radar and four short-range radar sensors on the corners for object detection. there is also a forward-facing laser to detect vehicles and road signs. the prototype vehicles available for testing also had laser sensors on the side and rear of the vehicle, which are helping toyota determine if it needs to include more laser sensors in the production model in order to get object detection right.
some quirks we noticed
there are still some quirks in how the car displays this information that we'd like to see changed. on the driver information screen, teammate displays icons of nearby vehicles in front of you and to the side (it even differentiates between sedans and larger vehicles). the heads-up display, though, only displays an icon for a vehicle in your lane, and we think that's a mistake.
"we are trying to keep the hud as simple as possible, yet also conveying the right amount of information to the driver" caveney said. "we believe the side information wasn't as essential on the hud."
at this point, you can't adjust the distance you'd prefer to stay away from vehicles on your side, the way you can with vehicles ahead of you with adaptive cruise control. there's also not much you can do if you don't like the way teammate communicates with you. the advanced drive voice commands will always come through the speakers at a preset volume (unlike navigation voice commands, which can be turned on or off and have volume adjustments). there is a setting within the advanced drive settings menu that will quiet your music or podcasts when an advanced drive voice command is issued, but that's about it.
there's still time before toyota lets teammate loose in the world, and over-the-air updates could bring changes later on, but for now, it's not without its quirks. it doesn't work while wearing a mask, for example, because it uses your nose and the points of your mouth to identify head position.
overall, teammate and advanced drive will deliver what they promise. no one is claiming these cars can drive themselves. but they do provide much of what competitors are offering in this space, and that should be enough to score toyota and lexus vehicles equipped with this technology a few more points in some consumers' minds. game on.