But is it better than the Cadillac or Tesla systems?
Consumer-ready self-driving vehicles are still a long way off. When most people imagine a self-driving car, they picture a vehicle with Level 4 or Level 5 autonomy, the latter of which doesn't even include a steering wheel or pedals. Level 2 is the most advanced technology available to consumers in the US, while Japan gets one Level 3 car in the form of the Honda Legend.
Lexus recently announced a new Level 2 feature called "Lexus Teammate," which competes against systems such as GM's Super Cruise and Ford's BlueCruise (both of which offer hands-free driving), plus Tesla's infamous Full Self-Driving that has yet to be released in full.
Teammate will arrive later this year in the United States equipped optionally on the 2022 Lexus LS 500h with all-wheel-drive, and we had a chance to try it out at Toyota's US headquarters in Texas.
Lexus Teammate pairs two vehicle functions into one, Advanced Drive and Advanced Park. The latter is similar to most self-parking systems that exist today; it uses 360-degree sensing with various cameras to automatically park the car in parallel or perpendicular spots.
Advanced Drive is the more intriguing of the two. Like Super Cruise and BlueCruise, it combines adaptive cruise control and steering assist, enabling partial hands-free driving (with eyes on the road) on limited-access highways. Unlike Tesla Autopilot, which still requires hands on the steering wheel, Lexus Teammate enables drivers to relax with their hands off the wheel.
The system is called Teammate because Lexus envisions it working like a computerized driving teammate in the car. Rather than making the driver do all of the work or letting the car completely take over, Teammate is meant to split the work, letting the two entities work together in harmony to reduce accidents to nearly zero.
Our test drive began in the passenger seat, with a Lexus engineer explaining the system's abilities and limitations. We quickly realized that Lexus took a conservative approach with this system to ensure the utmost safety and prevent drivers from abusing it. After joining a limited-access highway, Teammate takes a few moments to become acquainted with its surroundings to enable hands-free driving. Once the system deems it safe to activate, a loud announcement is projected through the speakers, letting the driver and passengers know the vehicle is taking over. We told Lexus we'd prefer something far more discrete, like the Super Cruise steering wheel light.
Once active and free of challenging obstacles on the road, Teammate feels on par with Super Cruise. It keeps the vehicle centered in the lane without swaying, and the digital gauge cluster keeps track of cars passing on the left or right. The system can even take an off-ramp by itself, slowing down automatically as it reaches the end before deactivating. A camera built into the steering wheel makes sure the driver is always paying attention. We like how the gauge cluster shows when hands-free driving is enabled and greys it out when hands are required on the wheel.
When it functioned properly, Lexus Teammate felt on par with other Level 2 systems we've tested. However, we did have some issues with it. The car constantly told us to put our hands back on the wheel when passing a merging lane, detracting from the hands-free driving bliss. Super Cruise delivers much longer periods of hands-free driving, creating a more relaxing experience.
Changing lanes with Lexus Teammate was a bit tricky as well. The system feels slower to respond than Super Cruise, meaning someone will nearly always enter your blind spot before it finishes the maneuver. Triggering the system requires the driver to activate the turn signal, put their hands on the wheel, and physically move their eyes into the side-view mirror. It's an intriguing song and dance to make sure the lane change is safe, but we feel Super Cruise handles it with more grace and less complication.
Lexus Teammate arrives later in 2021, only on the LS Hybrid with AWD. The Lexus engineer we rode with told us that adding the technology to a gas-engined LS would require additional by-wire controls that aren't currently available on that model. In theory, every Lexus hybrid model ranging from the UX up to the LS has the by-wire controls necessary for Teammate, so we could see this system expand rapidly in the coming years. The prototype LS we drove comes fitted with various LiDAR sensors positioned around the car, including the side fenders, front bumper, and rear bumper. Lexus isn't sure if all of those sensors are necessary for the production version, so if you think they look cool, don't get too attached.