Not so fast on self-driving cars, Toyota boss cautions after Paralympian hit

The self-driving e-Palette is guided by five lidar sensors and two cameras, one in the front and one in the rear. But in an abundance of caution, Toyota’s engineers limited the bus’ cruising speed to a crawl of just 1.25 mph and required a manual start to accelerate after stopping at intersections.

It was not the first urging of caution from the Toyota chief.

He also has attempted to bring the industry back to earth on carbon neutrality, publicly pitching the idea that, rather than pursuing a tunnel-visioned drive to a battery-electric future, the global industry should take a multipronged path to reducing emissions, with a mix of new and old powertrains.

Such a cautious approach can be easy to dismiss, given the hype over new startups and new technologies by both the industry and Wall Street. But the 65-year-old scion of Toyota Motor Corp.’s founding family speaks from experience and authority. Toyoda has been at the helm since 2009 — longer than nearly every other serving automaker CEO. He has buffed his namesake company into one of industry’s biggest, more reliable profit engines. And in the process, Toyoda has become a symbol for a kinder, gentler approach to industry revolution.

The Toyota accident was one of two autonomous-technology driving mishaps that occurred in late August. The other involved Tesla’s Model 3.

In Toyota’s Aug. 26 scrape, Toyoda apologized the next day and tried to meet the Paralympian, who reportedly was knocked over and suffered a bump on the head. A Paralympic Games spokeswoman said the athlete got a “comprehensive checkup” and that no external injuries were found. Toyota issued a statement and suspended e-Palette service. Then, after devising a litany of safety improvements, it resumed operation the following week.

In Tesla’s case, which happened Aug. 28, a Model 3 reportedly using the Autopilot driver-assist system ran into a parked Florida Highway Patrol car that had stopped on the side of an interstate to help a disabled vehicle, which was also hit. The Model 3 narrowly missed the trooper.

Tesla’s response was muted, even as U.S. auto safety regulators had opened an investigation into the California automaker’s Autopilot mode following a series of crashes that resulted in 17 injuries and one death. The probe covers some 765,000 Tesla vehicles.

The difference in reaction highlights Toyoda’s outlook.

“There are no set rules when it comes to autonomous driving,” Toyoda said. “That’s the reality we have now. It is not just about making vehicles safe. A safe traffic flow consists of infrastructure, drivers and carmakers. These three parties need to work as one to make a safe traffic flow happen. Autonomous driving rules need to be made in line with the reality on the ground.”

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