Auto Tech

Toyota develops autonomous drifting tech as a potential safety feature

This technology could automatically give you the skills of a professional driver to help maintain control in at-the-limit situations.

What if your next car could help you drive like drifting master Ken Gushi? As far-fetched as that sounds, engineers at the Toyota Research Institute are pursuing this goal. On Wednesday, TRI announced it's built a customized Supra sports car that, on a closed circuit, can autonomously drift around obstacles, a world-first according to the organization.

Drifting is cool and all, but who cares about a car that can slide around corners all by itself? What's the big deal? Well, this is a potential safety feature. In the future, Toyota could use such technology to augment human drivers' abilities, to provide autonomous control in critical, at-the-handling-limit situations. Say you're starting to spin after hitting a patch of black ice. A professional driver might apply throttle and just enough steering angle to drift his or her vehicle to maintain control and prevent a crash, something that normal motorists would not have the skills to do.

If your future Toyota or Lexus vehicle had self-drifting capability, it could temporarily and automatically give you the driving skills of an expert, the ability maintain control in risky situations. This capability is enabled by, among other things, TRI's Nonlinear Model Predictive Control. According to the organization, this technology "extends the vehicle's operational domain beyond the point of tire saturation." In other words, it enables you to get loose.

Your next Toyota might enable you to drift around obstacles to avoid a wreck.

Toyota

The Supra test mule used for this research features computer-controlled throttle and steering systems as well as a sequential transmission and the ability to brake each wheel individually. Along with other hardware, the NMPC runs on a computer with an x86 architecture. To maintain graceful balance while drifting, the car calculates a new trajectory every 1/20th of a second, which you can see in the video embedded above. Toyota's test Supra demonstrated its self-drifting skills on Thunderhill Raceway's 2-mile West track.

In a release shared by TRI, Avinash Balachandran, senior manager of the group's human centric driving research said, "Through this project, we are expanding the region in which a car is controllable, with the goal of giving regular drivers the instinctual reflexes of a professional race car driver, to be able to handle the most challenging emergencies and keep people safer on the road."

Most future safety technologies are pretty boring, but this one is intriguing. We still have a lot of questions about how autonomous drifting might work in the real world, like, does it do any good in low-powered, front-wheel-drive vehicles? But regardless, this sounds like a promising -- and seriously innovative -- feature.

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