LAS VEGAS -- Auto and tech companies are racing to get human drivers completely out of their autonomous cars, perhaps as soon as this year.
Numerous companies have been testing small fleets of autonomous vehicles on highways and city streets, yet, to date, nearly all of these vehicles have had test drivers or engineers inside, ready to take over should the unexpected happen.
One of the hottest discussion topics at this week's CES conference -- formerly the Consumer Electronics Show -- is when companies expect to boot their so-called safety drivers out of their autonomous vehicles.
On Monday, a Toyota executive explained how the Japanese automaker is aiming to demonstrate a true self-driving vehicle -- one without a human babysitter -- in time for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
Well before the summer games, General Motors has said it plans to have a fleet of driverless electric Chevy Bolts in certain urban areas as part of a ride-hailing service.
Mike Ableson, GM's vice president of global strategy, said Monday during a CES panel on autonomous driving that the company still aims to have these heavily modified Bolts up and running for commercial service sometime in 2019.
Gill Pratt, head of the Toyota Research Institute, told reporters that his company's future vehicle -- a true self-driving car -- would be considered "Level 4" autonomous.
Under a widely followed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration classification system, a Level 4 autonomous car has the ability to drive itself most of the time, but still has a steering wheel and pedals for manual driving in bad conditions or for tricky maneuvers.
By comparison, Cadillac's new Super Cruise function and Tesla's "autopilot" mode are considered Level 2 autonomy and allow for hands-free driving in many settings, such as freeways in good weather.
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"It's important to know that if you have an (Level 4) car that's being tested with safety personnel in the car, it's not actually being tested in a (Level 4) mode, it's being tested in (Level 2) mode," Pratt said.
Toyota offered no details on the type of self-driving vehicle it wants to have by 2020, or whether this vehicle would be ready to enter production then.
Toyota is a major sponsor of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, so perhaps these autonomous Toyotas could shuttle people between sporting events, similar to how self-driving BMW sedans outfitted by Aptiv (formerly Delphi) are transporting CES conventioneers this week to and from Las Vegas destinations.
GM's plans call for more than 300 Bolts -- the exact size of the fleet hasn't been announced -- that would operate within set geographic boundaries in the cities where they roll out.
Ableson said that pulling off a self-driving car without a driver "is a huge step."
Google-owned Waymo is on pace to have its fleet of driverless Chrysler Pacificas moving riders as soon as next month's opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Waymo already has the Pacificas on Phoenix-area roads without any drivers inside. A Waymo spokesman said Monday that the company is still on track with its announcement n November that a local rider service using the driverless vehicles would happen in the "next few months."
Ford, for its part, is still aiming to have a Level 4 driverless car in production beginning in 2021. The company is expected to reveal more about its autonomous vehicle business strategy on Tuesday, when CEO Jim Hackett gives a keynote speech at CES.
Speaking with reporters Monday, Toyota's Pratt cautioned against focusing too much on which level of autonomy each company has achieved. The categories top out at Level 5, when a vehicle could drive itself all of the time and may not even need a steering wheel.
"I think it's much better to discuss what are the environments that the car can handle," Ableson said. "How many unexpected things can it handle? Can it deal with unprotected left-hand turns, for instance?
"Can it deal with a long line of traffic where it needs to negotiate amongst human-driven cars -- where is the autonomous car going to be let in? That's quite a hard thing for cars to do. I think all of us have a lot of work to do," he said.
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