Toyota: Full Self-Drive Is a Long Way Off

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2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

CARS.COM — Amid a flurry of self-driving announcements this month, the where and when for such technology still depends on who you ask. Toyota says fully self-driving technology may not show up for another 10 years or more, while Mercedes-Benz says a car that allows you to watch a movie while it drives could be coming soon.

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The responses aren't as inconsistent as they sound. Bob Carter, who heads up Toyota's U.S. operations, describes two different paths to self-driving.

"One we call the guardian path, which is more autonomous driving but the driver is still driving the car, still engaged with the car," Carter said on April 11 at an automotive forum held by J.D. Power and Associates and the National Automobile Dealers Association ahead of the 2017 New York International Auto Show.

"The other path, I call chauffeured I sit in the backseat, I read my paper," Carter said. Toyota is working on both, but he thinks the latter will come in the "second half of the next decade, if that at all."

But a lesser threshold might exist the point where you can divert attention to something else, like checking email or reading a book, while your car drives under certain conditions. That wades into a murky realm of SAE International's Level 3 self-driving technology, a designation for technology that drives and monitors your surroundings in certain situations. In those scenarios, you're merely a backup.

Carter declined to say when Toyota would achieve Level 3, but it's something Audi hopes to debut with its next-generation A8. Still, one J.D. Power official said such territory carries high risk.

"A Level 3 car is actually probably the most risky thing that we could have," said Doug Betts, J.D. Power's senior vice president of global automotive operations. "There's going to have to be a lot of discussions about how we make this progression. People do you see it every day, you look over and some guy's looking at their Facebook page, and their car doesn't even have [self-driving] technology. ... If you give them the technology, they're going to go in the backseat and mix a drink."

Christoph von Hugo, head of driver assistance systems and active safety at Mercedes-Benz, disagreed. He called Level 3 possible but admitted "challenges at all levels" and not just legal ones before mass-market cars can allow drivers to divert attention elsewhere. But a car with proper driver oversight can mitigate a lot of them, he said.

"We're working on all of those," von Hugo said, but "it's not far out there where we'll have a chance [for drivers] to take the hands off the steering wheel. Maybe you watch movies on the entertainment system."

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Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price.  Email Kelsey

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