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Odaiba waterfront Japan

The Autonomous Olympics – will Toyota be ready?

Shop windows don’t come any bigger than the Olympic Games. Get it right and it can change the world’s perception of a city, a nation or a core technology. Get it wrong, and you risk ridicule and, which is worse, investment-bleed from the very things and places you were hoping to champion.

In London in 2012, the world was introduced to a revitalised British capital, with gigantic transport and infrastructure projects like CrossRail well under way. In Rio in 2016 though, the impact of a world spotlight was rather less kind to the city’s building standards.

Odaiba waterfront Japan

Turn your eyes to Tokyo in 2020, and you’ll see Japan’s latest take on the Olympic phenomenon – and Toyota, determined to make it the autonomous Olympics. As a top global sponsor of the Games and the country’s flagship automaker, Toyota sees the Tokyo games as a turning point — particularly in terms of public awareness of autonomous cars and systems.

Although as yet Toyota has not garnered the same level of attention in the autonomous market as other carmakers like Nissan and Ford, it has declared that it will achieve autonomous driving on city streets by the early 2020s.

Toyota and Lexus models are set to be fitted with the latest generation autonomous driving tech as of 2018, but Ken Koibuchi, Toyota’s executive general manager in charge of autonomous driving, has been quoted as saying he wants to use the Olympics as a showcase to win hearts and minds for the technology. There’ll probably be a degree of sleight of hand and mind involved in that showcase though – the Odaiba waterfront area of Tokyo, where many of the Olympic venues will be, is an ideal environment for autonomous demonstrations, and it’s highly likely to be the key area of focus for the technology, because Tokyo itself is a particularly challenging city in which to deliver autonomous driving at Level 4 (regarded as ‘true’ autonomy, where the car is ‘designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip’). And to get up to speed with some of its marketplace competitors, Toyota has a lot of work to do in a relatively short period if it’s to avoid ‘pulling a Rio’ in three short years.

Light Detection and RangingThe Japanese government is spearheading an industrywide effort to map the country’s roads. But so far, only a portion of its highways are finished – so intensive mapping work is needed in the next 36 months. At least as importantly though, to deliver full autonomy along current lines of technical thinking and safety requirements, Toyota will have to integrate LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) sensors into its chosen autonomous vehicles – the sensors have never previously been part of Toyota’s kit, so there’s technical design work and testing to do before the Olympic Games and their utterly unmoveable deadline.

As the company has said its primary concern as it moves into autonomous driving systems is public safety, there will also undoubtedly be work still to do in terms of the user interface for any Level 4 autonomous navigation, the recognition of small to medium hazards – another key concern in a city as busy and populous as Tokyo is – and a rigorous testing schedule of Toyota’s technology before it can be allowed to try and wow the Olympic-watching world.

If there’s a carmaker on the planet that can meet the deadline it’s set itself, it’s Toyota, but the question is whether it can deliver a Level 4 autonomous driving experience that will win hearts and blow minds, showing off something that can turn skeptics into customers by the time the Olympic Games open in 2020.

Watch this space.


autonomous, LIDAR, tokyo Olympics, Toyota