Toyota’s chief self-driving researcher thinks autonomous cars may not come in his lifetime

Humans will be driving for a while yet according to researcher’s crystal ball

John Leonard, the head of autonomous vehicle research at the Toyota Research Institute, has expressed doubts about level five autonomous vehicles becoming viable in the near future.

“Taking me from Cambridge to Logan Airport with no driver in any Boston weather or traffic condition — that might not be in my lifetime,” Leonard told Bloomberg.

While many other automakers are explicitly working to create a future full of self-driving cars without a steering wheel, Toyota aims to use the technology as a backstop for human drivers, as well as allow for autonomous operation.

Akio Toyoda, Toyota’s CEO, has admitted the automotive sector is now in “a life-or-death battle … in a world of unknowns” where technology companies are “our new rivals, with speed many times greater than our own”.

Generally seen as late to the self-driving party, Toyota has significantly increased its efforts over the last few years.

The Toyota Research Institute was established in 2016 with multiple sites across the US, and reportedly has around US$4 billion ($5.5 billion) in funding.

In addition to autonomous vehicle technology, it is also doing research in the field of robotics, artificial intelligence, materials science, and user experience. It also has official partnerships with a number of universities, including Stanford and MIT.

Toyota has also invested US$500 million ($685 million) in Uber, and is working together with the ride-sharing company on self-driving technology.

As a counterpoint to Leonard’s pessimism, Waymo, Google’s self-driving division, plans on launching an autonomous taxi-style service in Phoenix within a year or so.