Toyota plans to sell cars that switch lanes on the highway at the simple touch of a button within five years in Japan.
The Japanese automaker, which has long been cautious about embracing autonomous vehicles, signalled a big shift in strategy on Tuesday as it laid out its plan for staying ahead of Apple and Google in the race to build self-driving cars.
Matching targets set by Nissan and Daimler, Toyota said it planned to commercialise cars that could drive themselves on highways by about 2020.
To showcase its technology, Toyota took reporters on a test drive of a concept vehicle. The company used a modified Lexus GS that could merge with traffic and make other highway driving decisions using sensors, cameras and other equipment.
“We have been internally developing this technology for a long time, since 1990. We have a clear advantage and we will work to further strengthen our advantage,” said Moritaka Yoshida, Toyota’s chief safety technology officer.
“We will ultimately aim to offer freedom of mobility to everyone, including the elderly and the disabled,” he added.
The comments came as Toyota sought to dispel a widespread perception that Japanese carmakers were falling behind Silicon Valley rivals in the technology race.
Toyota recently hired Gill Pratt, the top robotics expert from the US defence department’s research arm, and pledged $50m in extra funding for artificial intelligence research.
Still, the Japanese carmaker maintained that autonomous driving technology was likely to function best when used with human drivers as “a team” to ease congestion and lower the risk of traffic accidents. Toyota officials said the company did not expect the 2020 version of autonomous technology to operate on roads where there were pedestrians and traffic lights.
“We are not aiming for automation to advance on its own,” Mr Yoshida cautioned.
Drivers will also continue to have ultimate control over driving decisions in the near future. In Toyota’s concept vehicle — dubbed “Highway Teammate” — the driver simply needs to grab the wheel or step on the brake to override autonomous functions.
Despite the excitement surrounding the technology, there remain legal issues. Road traffic laws would need to be revised and civil and product liability issues resolved before self-driving vehicles could be introduced on a wider range of roads worldwide.
While hands-free lane changes are a few years off, Toyota plans to offer a high-tech safety option in three Japanese models, including the Crown luxury model, by the end of the year.
The safety device allows the cars to communicate with similarly equipped vehicles and maintain a safe distance if the car in the front suddenly decelerates.
In areas equipped with special transmitters, the safety devices are also able to warn their drivers with a beep and an image on the dashboard if other cars and pedestrians are approaching from blind spots. The equipment can also inform drivers about how long it will take before a red light turns green.
Officials admit, however, that benefits from the safety technology will be limited since Japanese police have installed the necessary sensors at only 20 places, including just five locations in the Tokyo area. The equipment will be expanded to 50 places in Japan by March 2016.
This article originally appeared on the Financial Times.