Hands (and Foot) Free Driving
Unlike Paul and Todd, I don’t get to drive nearly every new car that comes out. Combine that with my overall proclivities towards driver-focused, as-close-to-analog as possible motoring and it should be little surprise that I have not had much experience with the current autonomous driving trend.
I recently remedied that void in my experience checklist with a hands-on (but really, hands-OFF) driving demo of Lexus’ TeamMate system - which among other more common things like cruise control, lane assist, etc. - features a Level-2 autonomous driving system called Advanced Drive. This was the main focus of the demonstration.
Lexus is very proud of this system. They’ve been working on it for years, and unlike many tech demos you may see journalists preview, they were so confident in their working prototype that I was actually allowed to test it on busy public roads. This is a far cry from doing a contained and controlled loop on the campus or just a nearly-closed course in the middle of nowhere.
The test mule was a Lexus LS500h - the hybrid variant of their full-size luxo-barge sedan. I actually drove this car a lot during the week, as it was my main “loaner” the company gave to me over my stay in Texas last June. I won’t get into a review of the CAR much, we have bigger fish to fry here. The bullet points are exactly what you’d expect from a LS: Extremely comfortable, quiet, well built, smooth, adequately powered, handling is capable but not sporty and it is something that seems like it was built to last and run forever.
Shocking, I know.
Anyway, the main focus here is on this Level-2 system. It serves as a HUGE assist but not a replacement of your driving inputs. There are indeed moments where the car will drive for you with zero inputs - steering, throttle, brake, lane changing, exit ramps, merging, etc. But it is NOT “auto-pilot” or anything your imagination stems from that very loaded phrasing that is thrown around recklessly.
Basically, what most of the world expects in a self-driving car - i.e. you get in, tell it where you want to go and you sit back (like in a taxi) and it does ALL the work - is what the industry calls Level-4 autonomous driving. This is hugely problematic, and despite what headlines have you believe, Level-4 is not even close to being an available thing for us at this point. We’ll get back to that in a bit though.
The real sweet spot that the industry is at now, is Level-2, like in this Lexus I drove. In all honesty, it CAN do what Level-4 offers sometimes, but for legal, safety and pure human error reasons won’t officially take control while you doze off or read the paper.
So how does it work? By combining cameras, radar and laser tech to scan the road, lanes and other cars with cameras and sensors keeping an eye on the INSIDE of the car (i.e. YOU), it does a symphony of code and programming to behave as humanly as possible to get you where you need to go.
Our demo was mostly on the highway - and while there is SOME functionality on normal roads, the highway drone is primarily the advantage of systems like this. There are various stages of the setup, starting with the activation of the system much like turning on the cruise control in any other car.
Once it’s “armed” the system uses the radar and lasers to scan the road. It shows up on the dash (and Heads-up display as well) with a digital 3D live stream of the highway. It’s extraordinary. Lanes, barriers, and other cars pop into the grid and move in real-time as they shift position around you. The radar even knows when it’s a car, truck, motorcycle, etc. and shows a model on the layout accordingly on the display. Once you see this in action for just a moment, it makes it fairly to see (combined with a GPS navigation system) how “easy” it would be for the car to drive you around fairly safely.
I put quotation marks around easy purely because once you think about it the programming, coding and logic built into a system like this is truly mind boggling in scale. My head was spinning with various scenarios for days after driving around like this for 20-odd minutes just thinking of every possible scenario that has happened to me or could happen to anyone that this system had to at least entertain the possibility of and write into the programming.
So as the driver, the armed system scans for a moment, and assesses the situation. It will let you know when it’s ready to help out. During this time, you set the cruise control to whatever speed you want it to go. Like any smart cruise, it will slow down and return to the set speed with traffic flow. During this time the halo of color on the display around ‘your’ car is gray - meaning you can take your feet off the pedals, and BARELY touch the steering wheel. It isn’t hands-off just yet, but when I say barely - I mean just that. The car is still doing the steering for you at this point but when it’s gray it’s not 100% sure it can operate on its own so it requires you to have a couple of fingers on the wheel for any sudden loss of the system.
What you really want is for the halo on the display to go blue. That signals that the car is officially driving you around. When the display goes blue, you can let go of the wheel and experience the strangest sensation in a boring driving situation you’ll likely encounter.
The first thing that I noticed was that I had never thought of what to do with my hands and arms when holding the wheel was no longer necessary. I admit that my trust in the system was something that I had to build, so initially my hands didn’t want to stray TOO far away - only a few inches once my initial “hover” phase ended. Eventually I began to trust the car a bit more and was definitely more relaxed moving at 70+ mph in traffic.
The system is pretty amazing. With its ability to scan so deeply and with such detail, it really does a wonderful job of navigating other cars, positioning itself where it needs to be, and go on about its way in a VERY smooth manner. Some earlier lane departure systems I have tried are “on/off” in that they don’t really do much until you’re just about to their intervention and they react with a bit of a ‘jerk’ to straighten your course. It's akin to bowling with those bumpers on the gutters. This is MUCH better.
The Lexus TeamMate system constantly scans the road ahead, and instead of just keeping in the dead center of the lane, tends to use the whole lane to smooth bends in the road in a way that is smoother than most people drive on their own. It’s impressive, and almost instantly noticeable. Or is it instantly NOT noticeable?
While you are in “Blue” the car has sensors and cameras in the cabin to keep an eye on you. The system will drive you around, but only while you pay some attention to the road. If you close your eyes beyond a heavy blink, it’ll wake you up with a combination of vibration, audible chimes/alerts and even tug at you with the seatbelt shoulder attachment point to get your attention. It also does some of these actions whenever it “passes the torch” to you and decides to disengage the driving aids like when coming to an off-ramp onto a side street.
Now, that last paragraph is what my biggest theoretical issues I used to have with such systems were. My thought was if you had to sit there and look forward the whole time how much better/easier/more relaxing is it than just driving the car as we all have been doing up until now? If I can't doze off or do something completely distracting (like a level 4 system would allow), It didn’t seem like a huge benefit in my head and maintained my biggest point of curiosity and pessimism going into this demo drive. I was not correct at all.
What I found was that the Level 2 experienced that Lexus has developed has indeed made for a more relaxing, less taxing drive. While you’re not going to be able to catch up on work on the road like on a train or airplane, there is a huge decrease in the monotony that comes with highway driving in traffic or the open road.
I adore driving, and love road trips. However the one thing I absolutely loathe is whenever you’re just chewing miles on a highway. Settling in with like-speed traffic causes you to often just stare at the car ahead of you from a pretty fixed distance for hours. This is almost hypnotizing in nature and basically puts me to sleep. It’s THIS moment in your driving that Level 2 does a huge service. The car never gets bored staring at the back of that semi. It never gets drowsy due to a seemingly static view out the front window. It also didn't have a heavy lunchbreak and isn't begging for a food-coma nap.
By having the car do that awful boring slab driving it takes care of the real bad part of the driving task. Sure, you have to pay attention, but it was immediately apparent that not only did this type of highway drone travel not fatigue/hypnotize me when I didn’t have to control the car, but watching the system do its job was actually really fun.
Seeing a car enter out of the corner of my eye, then watching for it to pop into the HUD, seeing how the car will react and go on with it’s task at hand was extremely cool. Obviously you don’t want to see the car FAIL, but it’s really fun to watch it work in real time. Sometimes it couldn't figure out what exactly to do and I had to take over, but more often than not it handled unexpected situations like a seasoned veteran of the road.
I noted to the Lexus rep in the car with me that this system removed the worst most boring part of highway cruising and inadvertently replaced it with something that’s actually entertaining. I’m sure that this novelty would eventually wear off - but if you’re worried that it’s equal torture/work/fatigue sitting there with your eyes facing forward that you may as well just drive, you’re wrong.
There were other instances, I’ll let you watch the video above if you’re interested but all in all this was a huge success in terms of what is and what isn’t possible. Speaking of which, along with my prior notions and opinions on autonomous driving, I did have a revelation when I was doing this. Level 4 is a long ways away - possibly never actually happening.
As long as the vehicle asks you to keep SOME level of involvement, the vehicle (and company who programmed it) can not be 100% liable for what happens. This is advantageous for the company making the vehicle.
Most people have heard of the age-old scenario of a toddler or an elderly person in the road and the car has to choose which is the one to hit and which to dodge - when total avoidance isn’t possible and it’s a swerve left or right. Who makes that call? I’ll tell you that nobody wants to be the one to be to blame for this choice.
But beyond that, no matter how good the various autonomous systems are (and honestly, this Lexus one performed brilliantly) there will never be a scenario where the system can handle ANYTHING that comes its way. There are certain things (tire blowout, a 2x4 falls off a truck ahead of you, somebody comes into your lane from the oncoming at a closing speed of 100mph - whatever) that just can’t be programmed accurately and as long as that’s the reality nobody will actually SELL you a fully autonomous car.
I spoke with the Lexus rep about this revelation and that to me it seemed like you can’t have level 4 until EVERY SINGLE CAR on the road is a level 4 - literally a single human-piloted machine still on the road means that nobody really gets to have level 4. He confirmed this thought, and said simply “you’ve just realized what WON’T happen during our lifetime”.
So on that bombshell, my thoughts on Lexus’ TeamMate system (and pretty much any Level-2 for that matter) are this: Even though we may be stuck at Level-2 indefinitely, it’s far better, more useful and more interesting than you probably give it credit for. Even for somebody like me who RARELY uses just the bog-standard cruise control - even on road trips, I really like it and would totally use it to chew miles if I had access to it in my own car.
This tech is coming out in the top shelf Lexus products next year, and as everything else does, will trickle down into “normal” vehicles as time goes on. Basically I figure a Camry will have this system as part of an optional package in roughly 10yrs and somehow Hyundai will offer something like it as standard on their Elantra inside 4.
Seriously, how does Hyundai do that???
I write and I know things. I am also the resident motorcycle expert at Everyday Driver - check out the Cycle Report - www.thecyclereport.com - on our YouTube channel. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.