Toyota stops self-driving ‘e-Palette’ service after one of the Olympic athlete crashes

Toyota has suspended its autonomous shuttle service in Tokyo’s Olympic Village after one of its vehicles collided with a visually impaired athlete. Reuters reported. Technically, the vehicle was not driving autonomously, but was being manually driven at the time of the incident.

Toyota had dozens of its “e-Palette” shuttles in use during the Olympics, demonstrating a far-reaching concept that the company first showed in 2018. At the time, the automaker said its e-Palettes, which are modular battery-electric vehicles without traditional controls such as steering wheels or pedals could function as shuttles or mobile retail spaces.

Toyota saw the Olympics as an opportunity to showcase its new technology. The boxy vehicles were used by athletes and Olympic personnel months prior to the start of the Summer Games.

But that came to an end this week after one of the vehicles rammed into an athlete scheduled to compete in the Paralympic Games. According to Reuters, the shuttle was at a T-junction when it turned into the athlete at a speed of 1-2 kilometers per hour. The vehicle was operated manually at the time, with a human operator using the joystick. The athlete was taken to a nearby medical center for treatment and was able to walk back to his home.

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda acknowledged the crash in posted a video on youtube. “It shows that autonomous vehicles are not yet realistic for normal roads,” he said Reuters.

A spokesperson confirmed that the e-Palette service has been shut down as a result of the crash and could not say when it would resume. But this does not mean the ultimate end of the e-Palette program, the spokesperson said. “This does not mean that the entire e-Palette program has been discontinued in addition to its current use at the Games,” he said.

Toyota’s shuttles resemble the low-speed autonomous pods in use in cities around the world. In 2017, a driverless shuttle in autonomous mode crashed into a truck in Las Vegas. Investigators later determined that the crash occurred in part because the safety operator in the shuttle did not have direct access to the manual override controls.