A self-driving Lexus

Toyota Motor will bring a self-driving automobile that can change lanes on highways to the commercial market around 2020, the Japanese carmaker said.

“The vehicle realizes free mobility even for seniors with weakened physical ability and people with handicaps,” Moritaka Yoshida, senior managing officer, said at the announcement, where a prototype was unveiled.

The automaker had previously characterized self-driving technologies as auxiliary features to aid the driver, showing little inclination to build a finished product. But the change in tune likely came about due to a push from the government, which seeks to collaborate with the private sector in developing self-driving vehicles by 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics.

Toyota has been accumulating related know-how since the 1990s. The prototype shown Tuesday emits infrared rays to monitor the location of other cars in its vicinity and has a front camera that serves as the “eyes” of the vehicle.

Artificial intelligence compares the data collected with historical driving records to decide whether it is safe to merge into traffic, change lanes, or pass another vehicle on a highway. In its current effort, Toyota is limiting the scope of self-driving to highways, which pose a lower technical hurdle than navigating local roads.

“Other companies probably have not achieved this level of self-driving,” a Toyota official said, expressing confidence.

Boston Consulting Group projects that self-driving cars will account for one in four new autos, or 30 million, expected to be sold worldwide in 2035.

U.S. automaker General Motors is also developing self-driving cars, as are such tech giants as Google and Apple. Competition is seen heating up further with Toyota’s move.

Putting a fully self-driving vehicle on the road, however, will require legislative changes, and insurance and liability issues in accidents will need to be sorted out, said Ken Koibuchi, head of self-driving vehicle development at Toyota.

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