Toyota is Working on Five Technologies of the Future Right Now

Toyota is simultaneously trying to be ready for the present, while preparing for the future. With the automotive industry now tied an overarching mobility theme, the Japanese automaker is spreading its reach not just into alternative fuels for powering vehicles and buildings, but also to bodily safety in a crash, innovative towing solutions, even using the learnings of a performance driver in accident avoidance. In the future, Toyota wants to master all these things.

During a recent press event, the automaker went into depth about the technologies they are working on that the company sees as the best paths forward for energy, safety and sustainability across the spectrum of its vehicle offerings.

Hydrogen Generators

Toyota has been developing hydrogen fuel cells for more than two decades, with one currently powering its Mirai sedan. Now the company is partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to build, install and evaluate a fuel cell power generator at NREL's Flatirons Campus in Arvada, Colorado.

The one-megawatt generator integrates multiple Toyota fuel cell modules, which has already been demonstrated, providing clean power to a data center at the campus. Toyota also developed the control system and says that it can be a drop-in replacement for a conventional generator. Those will start being delivered next year.

Toyota 1 megawatt generator
Toyota is working on a hydrogen-powered generator. Toyota Motor North America

(Hyper) Active Safety

Toyota was one of the first original equipment manufacturers to offer automatic emergency braking in almost all of its cars. This led to the prevention of many frontal collisions. But, Toyota says that was just a bit of what its active safety technology can provide. The company calls it the Guardian approach and in the near future it will allow vehicles to autonomously drift (slide sideways) around an accident.

"Now, it's very easy to misunderstand our work and why we're doing it as if we're trying to build some kind of horizontal roller coaster. That is exciting, but it's not what we're getting at. Rather, what we're trying to do is to bring the skills of the most expert driver into every car to prevent as many crashes as possible," Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota Research Institute said to Newsweek at an event at Toyota R&D center in Michigan.

"And the way that we do it is by building models to better understand human beings and to create an autonomy framework that's shared between the human being and the artificial intelligence," he said.

Toyota says it wants to blend these human/artificial intelligence systems to navigate emergency driving situations, making people safer on the road.

"And of course, today the world has many challenges, and objectives like producing happiness for all could sound trite or naive, but it's not. We actually think of it as our core mission," Pratt said.

Hitchless Towing

Hitchless towing, Toyota says, is something you have to see to believe. It's basically picking a lead car and a follow car—in this situation the follow car has to be drivable—where the follow car enters an autonomous mode. It uses all of its sensors already in place, and vehicle-to-vehicle communications to emulate the wheel tracks of the vehicle in front.

Toyota hitchless towing
Toyota had two prototype Siennas outfitted with special equipment to demonstrate hitchless towing. Toyota Motor North America

Toyota demonstrated this at the American Center for Mobility's Smart Mobility Test Center in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The slow speed demonstration took place on the six-lane by six-lane mock intersection at the facility, which is used to test all manner of autonomous and electric vehicles. The Toyota Sienna minivans stayed about 15 feet apart, even navigating an intersection with a stoplight.

Human Machine Interaction

Toyota's Collaborative Safety Research Center (CSRC) is beginning four new biomechanical research projects. They're studying differences in injuries between men and women and different age groups, technologies that can help prevent impaired drivers from driving, how to predict when a driver is at risk of incapacitation and how to better switch between autonomous and human pilot modes.

For the differences in injuries, researchers will use a combination of computer modeling, tissue experiments and medical imaging data to investigate ankle injuries across groups and sexes.

CRSC ankle research
Toyota is researching why ankle injuries are different across the sexes. Toyota Motor North America

CSRC is collaborating with the University of Virginia, University of Michigan Medical School, University of California San Diego, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Iowa State University and University of Wisconsin-Madison through the new projects.

Hydrogen Trucking

Toyota is testing a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain in a Kenworth T680 semi-tractor. It has six hydrogen tanks behind the driver, armored to withstand a .50 caliber bullet. They generate electricity for the two fuel stacks that generate electricity. It has a four-speed automated-manual transmission doing the shifting.

The truck has a range of about 300 miles when pulling 80,000 pounds, good for daily runs, and Toyota says the powertrains are engineered to last as long as an equivalent diesel engine. Refueling hydrogen is as fast as gasoline, and service is far less than a traditional engine, both of which add to the advantages of a fuel cell powertrain. Toyota is putting the stack into production next year, aiming to sell them to its partners.

Toyota hydrogen fuel cell
Toyota's hydrogen powertrain can take a semi-truck about 300 miles on a charge. Toyota Motor North America