This is 2018. We are now amidst wearable technology, electric cars that seem to be breaking the laws of physics, and autonomous applications that are smart enough to drive just about any car. Now, I understand not everyone would have heard of this application so let me elaborate. Up to this point, cars produced by various motor companies such as Tesla, Mercedes, and BMW have come with various sensors and electric motors in order to allow it to drive itself on the highways. If the car you purchased had a self-driving mode, great. Otherwise, you’re out of luck until you are able to buy yourself the next greatest self-driving vehicle. However, an American hacker-turned-developer by the name of GeoHot (George Hotz) has launched an open-sourced product called OpenPilot. As long has your vehicle comes standard with Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) and Lane Keep Assist System (LKAS), your vehicle too can drive itself.
George Hotz is an ingenious man; he was the first one to jailbreak an iPhone at the young age of 17, and has a hacking-rapsheet longer than the list of Tesla Model 3’s on backorder. GeoHot has since created a company called Comma.ai that has released an open sourced code via gitHub (an online platform through which programmers are able to share codes). With those codes and a few hardware parts will enable anyone to convert their dumb commuter into a smarter piece of technology that will improve countless people’s lives. The idea with the application is simple. The OpenPilot system taps into the vehicle’s pre-existing ACC and LKAS sensors, and it will combine the information it receives in conjunction with a aftermarket installed camera to accelerate/decelerate and steer the vehicle within the highway lanes. Well, that is with the assumption that the user is capable of adjusting some of the codes in order to implement it to his vehicle accordingly.
I was able to test out this system with the courtesy of a family-friend of mine, CEO & Co-Founder of WizeIoT, DaeHyuk Ahn. With enough knowledge about coding to has already implemented the OpenPilot system into his 2018 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. When I had first heard about the fact that he had installed an aftermarket autonomous system to a Toyota SUV, I was highly skeptical at not only just the application of the program but also the practicality of how it could work at a broader spectrum. However, his demonstration blew me away. Using the OpenPilot system, he more or less had replicated the Level-2 autonomy that we now see in most of the outgoing Tesla Models. Unlike the conventional LKAS which will often only give steering input if it senses that the vehicle is starting to deviate towards the lane divider, OpenPilot is able to give consistent steering inputs to keep the car nice and centered in the middle of the lane. That combined with Adaptive Cruise Control-that’s when it really feels like a step in the right direction.
The important thing is that OpenPilot is still widely being developed all across the world. More miles are being logged everyday with it’s users and the codes are being developed and implemented to various models of vehicles, but there still is a limitation with the fact that it is not accessible for everyone. There are a couple hours of coding required in order to make sure that the program doesn’t malfunction while it is active. Since the American government has not officially allowed for a widespread use of the program, one would be working under his own digression that if anything were to go wrong, it would be on one’s own digression too. The drawbacks don’t end there; since most of the LKAS are built only to be giving up to 12 degree steering angle, the heavier turns require driver input in order to keep the vehicle within the lanes.
If you have not yet experienced self-driving vehicles, it may throw you off a bit as it certainly is an odd feeling not having to focus so hard on the road. I can imagine though, in the near future once the network of volunteer programmers can finalize codes so it can be utilized by everyone, this system will affect countless lives as it will allow people to enjoy the time they would have spent driving on other more productive activities. Yes, with Level 2 autonomy there needs to be a driver present in the car, but at the same time I can speculate that this program will only get more and more advanced as OpenPilot gains publicity. Auto-pilot, with all of its convenience at a fraction of the price. If that’s what the future holds, I could get used to that.
Now on to the Highlander it self. For the most part, it’s what you would expect in a Toyota’s take on the Full-size SUV segment. The cargo capacity is good but not great, it handles like a condo on wheels, and Toyota’s current generation infotainment system is one of the most infuriating system to navigate. The flap-design buttons aren’t actually buttons and there is no way of telling if you have actually pressed the button and there’s a delay to the screen every time it toggles. Considering that this vehicle was over $40k brand new, I certainly was underwhelmed with the system that Toyota has in all of their current vehicles.
I also was quite disappointed with the interior space in the Highlander; the third row space in particular. I get that most of the people that will be occupying the space would be shorter than 4 ft and still in elementary school, but come on Toyota, has anyone from Toyota corporate sat in the back seats? If you’re one of us lucky ones to have normal sized legs, there is no possible position that will be comfortable. I ended up sitting in this weird fetal position where my knees were jammed up into my chest due to the odd floor design-I don’t know if it’s the axels or the hybrid motor that is intruding into cabin space, but I’m hoping that Toyota will acknowledge this issue in their next generation Highlanders.
The Highlander isn’t all bad though. It comes with everything you need during your daily commute: equipment like Heated seats, tri-zone climate control and an impressive gas mileage thanks to the hybrid motor. Barring the fact that the alternation between the gas and the electric motor feels sluggish, it’ll do just about everything you need it to do. For a Toyota SUV, the exterior looks surprisingly well put-together too, so that’s always a plus.
All in all, I recognize that this review has been a bit out of the ordinary. After driving (and being driven around in) the Highlander, I’ve come to this: Though the Highlander has a fair build quality, high practicality and great reliability, it really is not all that special. But when you pair the positives about the Toyota Highlander with the smart OpenPilot prototype, it starts to go into uncharted territory. A cheap(ish) SUV that has everything you need on a daily basis that can cut the stress of driving in half while costing half of a base Model X-if you’re all about getting a great commuter for the whole family, you are really not that far off.