When I was an inexperienced 20-year-old learner driver back in 1993, my driving instructor seated beside me would, occasionally, use his right hand to adjust the steering angle and keep the car in the centre of the lane. And when I was instructed to merge into the next lane, he would keep a lookout for surrounding traffic and guide me accordingly while his hand hovered near the steering wheel rim.
Over two decades later, I’m behind the wheel of a car in Yokohama, Japan that can keep itself in the centre of the lane and even change lane automatically. No driving instructor needed.
It’s the Lexus LS500h, a 3.5-litre hybrid V6 luxury saloon, equipped with “Lexus Safety System + A”. The advanced active-safety package is designed for flagship models such as the latest LS limo. Included in the package is Lexus CoDrive, which bundles Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC) with Lane Tracing Assist (LTA) and Lane Change Assist (LCA).
Lexus’ DRCC and LTA are not the first features of their kind to be approved for road use in Japan. Nissan’s similar technology, ProPilot, has been offered as an option on the Serena MPV since August 2016 and on the X-Trail SUV since June last year.
But the Lexus LCA is a new development which is, at this time, only road-legal in Japan. I try it on a 12km route between the Pacifico Yokohama convention centre and the Daikoku Parking Area, via the metropolitan highway.
Activating the LCA is easy enough. It works in concert with the LTA function.
There’s a little lane-change icon displayed beside the fuel level indicator. The icon changes colour from white to green when the LCA is on standby for activation. Then, I push the indicator stalk up (to merge towards the left) or down (to merge towards the right) and hold it there for a few seconds.
If the LCA’s front and rear corner-radars determine that it’s safe for the car to merge into the next lane, there’ll be a beep before the system performs the manoeuvre, smoothly. A specific in-dash graphic is shown at the same time, along with a text reminder, “Please look around, directly”.
I do exactly that, of course, since I don’t fully trust the system just yet. After a few tries, I’m confident enough in the system to let the LCA execute the lane change without me touching the steering wheel.
An executive in the public affairs department of Toyota Motor Asia Pacific tells me: “To prevent overconfidence, we do not refer to this technology as ‘automated driving’. The driver has the responsibility for driving.”
Okay, I agree that the driver is ultimately responsible for the driving, even with these advanced driving aids. Which is the reason why my hands would instinctively hover near the wheel of the LS500h, ready to take over.
And the LTA system is ready to hand over control of the steering back to the driver whenever necessary, such as on a narrow exit ramp that curves sharply. Obvious warning beeps and various pop-up messages (“LTA Hold Steering Wheel”, “LTA Steering Assist Unavailable” and “LTA Driver Attention Required”) would prompt the driver to take the wheel.
I can do, and drive, without these gadgets. After all, if I need technological assistance to keep the car within its road lane and to change lane safely on the highway, I probably still need a driving instructor seated beside me.