Fully-automated driving begins to take shape in the Lexus LS500
Bruce Fraser gets a preview of Lexus's new flagship sedan, which will be landing in SA in 2018
Excuse the pun, but the drive towards autonomous driving remains firmly on track. It may be a slow process as technology is developed and painstakingly tested, but the majority of the world's motor manufacturers have this form of driving firmly engrained in the way they envisage the industry evolving.
That and, of course, electric vehicles - a form of motoring that continues to gain momentum in certain markets and perhaps also gives a glimpse to the landscape of the future.
The problems presented by electric driving are more clear-cut: range, charge time and cost. All of which are improving.
Autonomous driving, though, presents a range of ifs, whats and maybes and is more a work-in-progress.The complexities involved are immense - not only from developing and implementing the technology, but also the challenges presented by bureaucratic red-tape.
Lexus, with their new all-wheel drive LS500 model, are taking up the challenge and one of their lofty ambitions is to produce a vehicle that "targets zero road fatalities".
Speaking during a video presentation in Tokyo recently, Toyota president Akio Toyoda was adamant: "One thing above all and that is safety - 1.3 million lives are lost worldwide every year in vehicle accidents."
Automation of cars, he stressed, "was not merely a replacement of the driver. People should not overtrust safety systems."Although a hybrid version of the LS will be available in certain overseas markets, when it arrives in South Africa in the second quarter of next year, it will be with a newly-developed 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 engine (310kW and 600Nm) linked to the same 10-speed automatic gearbox found in the LC500 sports car.The LS is equipped with various technologies- some the very latest, some tried-and-tested and used by other manufacturers. All are chasing the dream of full automation.
As was pointed out during a business session, "the technology used is like a jigsaw puzzle. Certain aspects may be fairly standard, but is geared towards a bigger picture."
The LS500 is the flagship sedan in the Lexus line-up and encompasses what the brand is about - innovative styling, advanced technology and a cabin that presents the finest in luxury features.
The distinctive spindle grille - today a trademark of Lexus vehicles - is clearly evident as is the sleek silhouette. No easy feat when you have a car measuring over 5.2m long.
But it is the technology within that Lexus was keen to show journalists as we ventured onto the highways that criss-cross the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo.Simply tap the indicator and the vehicle and sensors will detect and activate a lane change manoeuvre with no input from the driver. There is also the usual active cruise control, lane marking recognition and a pre-collision system with pedestrian alert.
Going in to a corner too quickly? No problem. The vehicle is automatically slowed down as data is fed to its computer.
Other features include Front Cross Traffic Alert, which uses a forward direction radar to alert drivers of the direction from which a cross-traffic vehicle is approaching the intersection. Alerts are displayed using the LS's 12-inch head-up display.
Another impressive feature is the vehicle's automatic braking on detection of an object when reversing. Designed to eliminate those parking-bay blues, the sensors scan not only immediately behind you but to the sides as well and will bring you to a sudden halt if an object is detected.Put these together and the push towards fully automated driving slowly begins to take shape.
The ride itself is extremely comfortable and smooth, thanks in part to the standard air suspension while top-class materials are used in the sumptuous interior. This fifth-generation LS perhaps best illustrates how far the Lexus brand has come over the decades.
First launched in 1989, its evolution is impressive and makes one wonder what the next step is going to be. I guess we will just have to wait for more details on the LS+ concept to find out.