Lexus boss Tokuo Fukuichi spoke proudly in Detroit today of the technology packed into the company’s new-generation LS flagship, but one technology we shouldn’t expect to see in the near future is any level of advanced autonomous driving.
Speaking with Australian press today, Fukuichi said that he doesn’t expect level 5 autonomous driving – fully self-driven cars – “anytime soon”, although he was less clear on the extent of the new LS sedan’s autonomous capabilities.
One aspect of autonomous control that Lexus has launched with the new LS is a new pedestrian avoidance system, capable of recognising a human in its immediate path and then taking action to brake and steer around to avoid impact.
That alone represents an important advancement in available autonomous technology, moving beyond the increasingly common Autonomous Emergency Braking systems.
A number of other brands promise pedestrian recognition, too, although Lexus is confident that the new LS’s ability to take evasive action more significant than merely braking is a breakthrough development.
But, while other brands are headlining their big unveilings with autonomous technology, Lexus appears more focused on the driver experience – a position that diehard driving fans will be sure to applaud, but what does it mean for the competitiveness of the Lexus product in winning buyers drawn to the idea of a hands-free future?
Fukuichi asked, through an interpreter: “What is the purpose of autonomous driving? Is it to eliminate the human and not have them control the vehicle at all, or is it something else?”
“One of the difficulties we have now is that a lot of companies are competing to have the latest high-tech items, but part of the problem is that the customer has been lost in the conversation.”
“You don’t want to focus only on technology competitiveness, but also: how is the customer going to use that technology, how is going to fit into their lifestyle, do they even want that technology? We have to think about those questions, otherwise we end up with advancements that don’t consider the customer.”
Fukuichi says that full autonomous driving, which many manufacturers are now openly talking about with a view to availability inside the next decade, will be “very hard” to achieve.
“We are considering ways towards automated driving, for the Lexus brand, but the ability to get to Level 5 is still far off in the future,” Fukuichi said.
That level of driverless functionality is known in the industry as Level 5, while a number of manufacturers – like Tesla, BMW and Mercedes-Benz – are launching models right now with Level 2 control, with the vehicle able to manage steering, acceleration, braking, lane keeping on its own. Some can even negotiate lane changes on their own, once the driver requests it via the traditional stalk.
Although Fukuichi could not expand on the specifics of the new LS’s capacity for hands-off driving, Lexus LS chief engineer Toshi Asahi told CarAdvice today the vehicle will be able to drive in a limited autonomous mode if the driver takes their hands off the wheel, but only for a short time.
While rival models can accommodate around 60 seconds of hands-off driving, Asahi said that Lexus is still testing for the appropriate window of time that the LS’s system should tolerate.
Lexus Australia CEO Peter McGregor, also in Detroit this week, said he believes Lexus’s technological advancement “keeps pace with the market and with customer needs.”
“The technology introduced in this car, and planned for the future of this car, are driver-assist systems that will assist the driver without necessarily taking over full autonomous control of the vehicle,” McGregor said.
“I’m very comfortable with the balance between driver assistance, and driver engagement, in this car.”
McGregor acknowledged that there could be a greater safety advantage, however, to a greater amount of autonomous control beyond convenience – such as a driver suffering an event that suddenly incapacitates them while driving.
“I can see in those particular circumstances you could well argue that could be a safety advantage,” he said.
Although Lexus may not be prepared to offer any specific details on potential autonomous plans, it is likely that the new Highway Teammate system being developed by parent company Toyota – using Lexus vehicles – could make its way into future Lexus models.