Remember Pacific Rim? “The Drift. Jaeger tech, based on DARPA jet fighter neural systems. Two pilots, mind-melding through memories with the body of a giant machine.” Apparently someone at the Toyota Research Institute remembers that phrase well, and wanted to one-up the Pan-Pacific Defense Force with a new type of machine: a Supra that can drift all on its own.
An engineering team at TRI, focused on autonomous car control, wanted to test how AV algorithms would handle a car under less-than-ideal circumstances — heavy rain, ice, anything that could cause a loss of traction. It makes sense, then, to build an autonomous vehicle that would intentionally break traction. And if you’re going that far, may as well have it do more than just recover from a slide, right?
The Supra used for the test was “modified to be similar to that used in Formula Drift competitions,” according to Toyota’s engineers. That means a wider body, more steering angle, and more power — plus the full suite of safety features from a pro-level race car. Toyota went beyond the FD rules, however, to give the computer more control over the Supra. It’s equipped with individual, per-wheel brake control, allowing the computer to have the most granular inputs possible.
That level of granularity seems to work. The car can, in fact, drift around obstacles set up by the TRI team. What’s unclear, however, is how dynamically the car is actually reacting to them. It seems like the initiation point is hard-coded for this test, but the car appears to be managing its own slip angles from there to navigate obstacles.
While autonomous drifting likely isn’t a feature that’ll find its way to production Supras, teaching a computer to control a car that’s lost traction is an important step in AV research. True Level 5 autonomy would mean computer control in all conditions, regardless of how much grip each tire has. Sure, drifting a race track may be outside of the useful purview of an AV, but the data collected in the process is likely extremely helpful for future training. Like Drifting with a kaiju, sometimes you have to do something big to figure your problems out.