Toyota Research Institute Programs the World's First Car That Can ‘Autonomously Drift' Around Obstacles to Avoid Accidents

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【Summary】The engineers at Toyota Research Institute (TRI) combined their deep knowledge of vehicle dynamics and control design to successfully program a Toyota Supra to "autonomously drift" around obstacles on a closed track, which it says is the world’s demonstration of drifting without a driver behind the wheel.

Eric Walz    Mar 11, 2022 11:45 AM PT
Toyota Research Institute Programs the World's First Car That Can ‘Autonomously Drift' Around Obstacles to Avoid Accidents
The Toyota Research Institute (TRI) modified a Supra sports car so it can "drift" autonomously. The technology may one day improve safety on slippery roads.

Could the act of drifting in a vehicle help prevent accidents? One day its might be possible, so engineers at the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) developed a self-driving vehicle that can "drift autonomously" around obstacles.

TRI calls it a "new research milestone in autonomy" by developing a self-driving car that can perform high-speed drifting maneuvers without a driver behind the wheel.

The engineers at TRI combined their deep knowledge of both vehicle dynamics and control design to successfully program a vehicle to autonomously drift around obstacles on a closed track, which it says is the world's demonstration of autonomous drifting without a driver behind the wheel. 

TRI shared a video of its autonomous drift car on Wednesday. The demo vehicle was a Toyota Supra that was modified for autonomous driving research. 

It's equipped with computer-controlled steering, throttle, clutch displacement, sequential transmission and individual wheel braking. The Supra's suspension, engine, transmission, chassis, were also modified to be similar to that of vehicles used in Formula Drift competitions. 

TRI describes its approach as "Nonlinear Model Predictive Control" (NMPC). It pushes the vehicle's operational domain to the very limits of its performance, according to TRI. The idea behind this research is to utilize controlled, autonomous drifting that's controlled by software to avoid accidents by navigating sudden obstacles or hazardous road conditions like wet roads or black ice. 

"At TRI, our goal is to use advanced technologies that augment and amplify humans, not replace them," said Avinash Balachandran, Senior Manager of TRI's Human Centric Driving Research. "Through this project, we are expanding the region in which a car is controllable, with the goal of giving regular drivers the instinctual reflexes of a professional race car driver to be able to handle the most challenging emergencies and keep people safer on the road." 

The term "drifting" is the act of intentionally over steering a vehicle so that it makes a controlled skid sideways through turns with the front wheels pointed in a direction opposite to that of the turn. The trend is widely popular in car culture today and was featured in the Fast & Furious media franchise. The third movie in the franchise in 2006 was titled "Tokyo Drift".

The act of drifting traces its roots to the early 1980's with a Japanese race-car driver named Keiichi Tsuchiya. As a skilled race car driver, Tsucchiya began experimenting with drifting maneuvers so he would not spin out when driving through sharp curves at high speed during races. 

By pointing the front wheels in the opposite direction as the turn, the vehicle "drifts" through it by skidding sideways, which helps prevent a spinout that can lead to a crash.

"When faced with wet or slippery roads, professional drivers may choose to ‘drift' the car through a turn, but most of us are not professional drivers," said Jonathan Goh, TRI Research Scientist. "That's why TRI is programming vehicles that can identify obstacles and autonomously drift around obstacles on a closed track."

TRI demonstrated its self-driving Toyota Supra drift car at Thunderhill Raceway in Northern California.

The project began over a year ago. In 2021, TRI and the Dynamic Design Lab at Stanford University set out to design a new level of active safety to help avoid crashes. Together with the support of automotive performance tuning specialist GReddy and one of Japan's top drifting competitors Ken Gushi, the achievement is part of that journey. 

TRI is essentially using software to mimic the skills of an expert driver. The technology can also be part of an advanced driver assist system (ADAS), to assist a regular driver's ability to maintain control in dangerous situations such as driving on slippery roads, which may one day help improve road safety for all. 

TRI was established in 2015 and conducts research for the automaker to advance fields such as  robotics, machine learning, and human-centric artificial intelligence that amplifies human ability. The organization is led by Dr. Gill Pratt. 

TRI has offices in Los Altos, California; Cambridge, Massachusetts and Ann Arbor, Michigan.  

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