A sneak peek at Toyota's wonder car

January 14, 2013: 10:41 AM ET

No one who looks at the global success of the Prius should fail to consider Toyota's first iterations.

By Doron Levin, contributor

130114033327-lexus-ls-460-gallery-horizontalFORTUNE -- The Lexus 600h with cameras, radars and sensors strapped over its exterior looks more like a research project than a car. The research vehicle featured at last week's CES is one small facet of Toyota Motor Corp.'s push to create advanced gadgetry aimed at avoiding collisions and minimizing injuries and fatalities.

Toyota (TM) disclosed in Las Vegas that it has been creating the high-tech systems at a research center in Ann Arbor, Michigan and testing them under real-world conditions at a nine-acre model village located in a second research center in Higashi Fuji, Japan.

As a leader in the field of autonomous driving systems, Toyota executives scrupulously avoids predictions about what many say is inevitable, that in a matter of a decade or so, cars will be taking over the decisions and actions normally carried out by drivers.

"Step-by-step we will build trust with society and government so that vehicles will be allowed to perform more automated tasks," said Mark Templin, group vice president for Toyota's Lexus division. "These capabilities must be integrated with consistency and reliability before vehicles are trusted to drive alone."

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In the fall Lexus began selling its next generation LS flagship sedan, available with several features that constitute what Toyota executives call an intelligent "co-pilot." The features, such as "advanced pre-collision," sense an obstacle or hazardous condition, warn the driver to brake and will help slow the car to prevent or mitigate a crash.

"Ninety three percent of accidents can be traced in some way to human error," said Jim Pisz, a Toyota business strategist. If a driver is distracted or slow to react, braking might occur too slowly to avoid a collision.

Several systems in the new LS identify a hazard and can begin taking action. Lane keeping assist—Toyota calls it LKA—will sense when a car is drifting out of a lane, warn the driver and gently begin to steer the car if the driver fails to respond.

lexus-self-driving-advanced-active-safety-research-vehicle-537x367Toyota sees the systems eventually equipping more mainstream models and having a positive impact on energy consumption and traffic congestion because "start and stop driving" can be eliminated, said Bob Carter, a Toyota sales executive.

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Another technology being explored in Toyota's research center in Michigan is car-to-car communication, as well as communication with stop lights and other types of traffic signals. Cars can be programmed to avoid colliding with one another or to avoid arriving simultaneously at an intersection. They can warn nearby cars of ice or other hazardous conditions.

Toyota has positioned itself among the leaders in the field of autonomous driving—which doesn't mean that Ford (F), General Motors (GM), Nissan (NSANY) and others aren't interested or skilled in the technology. Others may be reserving publicity until the sentiments of consumers and regulators are more clear.

But as Toyota demonstrated with the introduction in 1998 of its first Prius, featuring gas-hybrid propulsion, the widespread acceptance of a groundbreaking technology takes time; it also requires patience and the willingness to spend capital prodigiously.

No one who looks at the global success of the Prius should fail to consider Toyota's first homely iteration, which seemed like an improbability to so many.

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