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Toyota Streamlines Self-Driving Car Development via WRC Race Circuit

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【Summary】Toyota President Akio Toyoda, a huge WRC fan, announced during the September Paris Motor Show that the Toyota Yaris WRC car that is due to compete in next year’s WRC 2017 circuit will be used as a medium for the advancement of autonomous driving research.

Michael Cheng    Nov 25, 2016 6:44 AM PT

For Toyota, one of the top automakers worldwide, desperate times call for desperate measures when playing catch-up with other manufacturers developing driverless cars. Compared to its competitors, the global car brand is one of the last to start developing autonomous technology for its vehicles. Toyota President Akio Toyoda resisted the transition for a long time, as such projects conflicted with his passion for traditional car racing.

In 2015, Toyoda eventually came around; and in an attempt to make up for years of sitting on the sidelines, the establishment launched a series of very unique driverless car projects. For example, the company was reportedly working on a "guardian angel" system that helps drivers avoid danger autonomously by taking full control of the car.

In the same year, it created the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), a billion-dollar, five-year venture that focuses on the transformation of cars using robotics and AI, which is led by ex-MIT professor Gill Pratt, ex-Google software engineer James Kuffner and ex-DARPA program manager Larry Jackel. 

To keep the momentum going, the company started testing its autonomous system in one of the most unforgiving race circuits in operation today: World Rally Championship (WRC).

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Extreme Unpredictability

The WRC takes extreme racing to unprecedented levels, with cars toppling over left and right, tires exploding as they succumb to sharp gravel and alarming driver (and spectator) fatalities. Toyoda, a huge WRC fan, announced during the September Paris Motor Show that the Toyota Yaris WRC car that is due to compete in next year's WRC 2017 circuit will be used as a medium for the advancement of autonomous driving research.

So while other companies in the sector are cautiously developing their driverless platforms through closed pilot programs and neighborhood-friendly stimulations in empty parking spaces, Toyota is going the opposite direction by exposing its systems to extreme unpredictability.

"Right now the biggest technical difficulty [for autonomous driving] is that on the road you cannot expect everything," explained Toyota's motorsport boss Koei Saga. "So when somebody suddenly drives directly in front of you or if the road is quite crowded or if some people are crossing the road without checking whether a car is coming, most of the sensors that we have right now cannot react that fast."

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Leveraging Partnerships

Toyota is not venturing into the ruthless WRC series alone. Although a veteran in the circuit, with over four decades of rally experience, the company will leverage its collaboration with Microsoft to get the most out of data mined from the WRC vehicle. The tech giant is also one of the automaker's partners in the TRI. It is important to consider that autonomous components on the Yaris WRC car will not be used to enhance its performance during the race.

"We also put our sensors on to our rally cars and they can, for example, predict a rock that is in the road in front of the car. When the sensors become capable of dealing with those obstacles at the speed of a rally car, we can enhance the level of sensor technology as a whole," said Saga. 


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