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Can you drift out of danger? Toyota gives Supra prototype autonomous driving abilities for safety

 
Zak Adkins
Journalist

The project set out to find different ways of using drifting to avoid accidents by navigating sudden obstacles


A milestone in vehicle research has been reached with the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) demonstrating a one-off Toyota GR Supra that can successfully navigate around obstacles by drifting – all without a single touch by a human being.

The idea behind the project was to see whether drifting could be used as a safety guidance tool to avoid obstacles that may be sprung on a driver at short notice, such as black ice or an incoming vehicle. 

According to Toyota, car crashes result in nearly 40,000 fatalities a year in the USA alone and a staggering 1.35 million fatalities worldwide. 

Toyota Supra front end static
This GR Supra is far from the standard car, with almost all aspects modified

Avinash Balachandran, senior manager of TRI’s Human Centric Driving Research, said that the goal was not to take control away from the driver, but to instead make the driver better. 

“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,” he said. 

Supported by automotive performance specialist GReddy and Japanese drifting icon Ken Gushi, the TRI team built a system which can replicate the skills of a performance driver and load that into the car’s software to benefit everyday drivers. 

Toyota Supra TRI drone shot
This TRI Supra can drift all on its own – with the help of a computer

What is the drift system and how does it work?

To break it down, the Toyota Supra used for the job has been extensively modified with computer controlled steering, throttle, clutch, sequential transmission and individual wheel braking – something you definitely won’t get on a production GR Supra. 

Computers respond to information sent from the car every twentieth of the second to balance the Supra and gracefully send it around the track – essentially a full size remote-controlled car that can go sideways and make lots of smoke while doing so. 

The suspension, engine, transmission, chassis and safety systems such as a roll cage and fire extinguisher have also been modified to be similar to the standards of Formula Drift – one of the highest competitive drifting events in the world. 

Toyota Supra self-drift smoke
Creating a smoke show is one thing the Supra is really good at

Would this technology actually work in real life situations?

While this technology probably wouldn’t work for front-wheel drive cars, for most rear or all-wheel drive cars, this drift safety obstacle avoidance could be a real win. 

The average car might not be set up to perform as well as this Supra if it had to drift in an emergency, but the technology used is intriguing and shows how the industry is always thinking of new ways to improve safety on our roads. 

This is the first time we have seen drifting used for obstacle avoidance, a skill originally developed by the Japanese back in the 1970s as an act of showmanship. Fans loved the sound and smoke show so much, the activity has taken off across the globe and is beloved by many car enthusiasts. 

Toyota Supra static sun shot
Japanese drift icon Ken Gushi helped develop the car

That being said, deliberately provoking oversteer – or drifting – is illegal on most public roads around the world and is a skill reserved just for the track as it could be dangerous on busy roads or for the inexperienced driver.

While the vision of seeing someone drifting to miss a cow that has stumbled across the highway seems frankly unrealistic, Toyota’s Research Institute doesn’t seem to think so. It will be interesting to see how the technology travels as cars become even more complicated than before.