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CES 2013: Lexus' Autonomous Cars Keep Humans Behind the Wheel

By Matthew Braga

Self-driving cars all the rage, and it's hard not to look at Google et al with awe – but Lexus might be taking the more sensible approach by keeping humans behind the wheel.

Google isn't the only company working on a self-driving car these days. Lexus chose CES to unveil its own autonomous research vehicle for the first time earlier today, dubbed the "advanced active safety research vehicle."

But don't think that Lexus' modified vehicle will be participating in DARPAA's Grand Challenge for self-driving cars anytime soon. Like Google's own project, this modified LS is capable of driving itself – but only in the interest of protecting the flesh-and-blood driver sitting behind the wheel.

As the name of the project implies, Lexus is less concerned with making a vehicle that can drive itself, and focused on adding smart safety detection features to its vehicles instead.

Like most autonomous vehicles, such as those operated by Google or designed for DARPA's Grand Challenge, Lexus' safety research vehicle is packed with a bevy of sensors and automatic control systems designed to observe, process and respond to the vehicle’s environmental surroundings. We're not just talking about regular old GPS either, but stereo cameras and LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) laser tracking too.

Laser tracking gives the Lexus vehicle an object detection radius of 70m from the roof of the car, and while three high definition cameras can cast their gaze even further at objects up to 150m away. There are also a number of radars around the base of the vehicle that perfrom speed, motion and location detection of other vehicles and objects passing nearby.

"While key components of these research efforts could lead to a fully autonomous car in the future," reads the company's press release, "the vision is not necessarily a car that drives itself." Rather, Toyota and Lexus envision a feature where the ability for a vehicle to interperet the environment around it could help augment a driver's existing skills and abilities.

This is where the distinction between driverless and autonomous cars becomes important – the two terms are similar, but not necesarily interchangeble. An autonomous vehicle that can make judgement calls and driving decisions based on its surroundings isn't the same as driving driverless, and that's the message Lexus is hoping to drive home.

The car, of course, is only one part of a larger picture. Toyota has an 8.6-acre plot of land in Japan designed to replicate real-life driving conditions and traffic simulations where it has been testing vehicle-to-vehicle communication for safer driving environments. This Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) will use short-range radio waves to alert both vehicle and driver to impending collisions, nearby lane changes, and even accidents between other vehicles.

Though the promise of full autonomy is certainly alluring – and a sci-fi staple – Lexus might actually be taking the more realistic approach. Our cars may soon be ready to drive themselves, but whether we'll be quite so willing to cede that control is a whole different matter – and if you'll pardon the pun, it sounds like a pretty sensible route.