Toyota Lexus Highway Teammate

It looks like an ordinary white Lexus on a highway near Tokyo. But this car, called "Highway Teammate," is Toyota's test vehicle for self-driving technologies. Image source: Toyota

Toyota (NYSE:TM) is joining the race to develop a self-driving car.

The giant Japanese automaker said on Tuesday that it will offer self-driving systems around 2020, a date targeted by similar programs at several of Toyota's rivals.

Between now and then, it will offer technology that takes steps in the direction of a fully autonomous vehicle, it said -- starting with a model that went on sale last week.

Self-driving: A better approach to improving auto safety
Toyota, like many automakers, believes that "passive" safety systems like air bags and stronger car-body frames have become good enough that future gains are unlikely in the near term. It thinks investing in technologies that can prevent crashes from occurring is a quicker route to improving automotive safety.

In theory, fully self-driving vehicles that can communicate with one another and with elements of the highway infrastructure should make crashes a rare occurrence once they're the norm. That's one of the key promises of self-driving cars -- but there are a lot of components of that future technology that are still under development, and will be for a while.

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A test driver shows off Highway Teammate's capabilities on a highway in Tokyo. Image source: Toyota

Toyota, like most of its global rivals and a number of Silicon Valley companies, has been working on autonomous-car technologies for many years. It's only in the last few years that elements of those technologies have begun to be deployed on production vehicles. Many more elements are coming soon.

Toyota says the next step down that road involves automated vehicle communication.

Car-to-car communications are key to a self-driving world
Automated communications systems are a key component of the vision of self-driving cars. If cars could let one another know what they're about to do, the thinking goes, it could prevent a lot of accidents. Imagine that you're driving on the highway, an obstacle appears, you slam on the brakes -- and all of the cars around you are instantly informed and automatically begin braking before their drivers can respond.

Vehicles will also be able to communicate with elements of traffic infrastructure. Imagine a highway system that warned you of a traffic jam ahead -- or a monitoring system at a busy intersection that warned you (or your car's computer) of pedestrians that were about to step out into traffic.

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The refreshed-for-2016 Toyota Crown, a mechanical sibling of the Lexus GS that is sold in Japan, is the first model to get Toyota's ITS Connect system. Image source: Toyota

Collectively, these technologies are known as Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). Clearly, ITS could prevent a lot of deaths and injuries -- if the systems were commonplace. While it'll be years before most of the cars on the road have them, there's some benefit to installing ITS capabilities in cars now.

Toyota will make its system, called ITS Connect, available on three models in Japan by the end of the year. The first is the refreshed version of Toyota's Japan-market Crown sedan, which officially went on sale last week. At 27,000 yen, about $225, it's a fairly inexpensive option.

Toyota's latest system is an investment in the (near) future
Toyota's ITS Connect system won't do a whole lot -- at first. It will only work on stretches of roadway where the government has installed ITS equipment. Right now, there are very few in Japan -- but more are coming over the next couple of years.

More are coming elsewhere, too. The U.S. government has been working on standards for ITS, and at least a few automakers are expected to bring the systems to market here soon. General Motors has confirmed that at least one Cadillac with vehicle-to-vehicle capabilities will be launched for the 2017 model year. Mercedes-Benz also has a system coming, and it's likely that other luxury brands (including Toyota's Lexus) will make them available in the U.S. before long.

More technologies will come to market before long
For Toyota, the new ITS system is one facet of what it calls its "Mobility Teammate Concept." The idea is that -- at least in the near term -- the driver will work together with the car's systems to drive safely, as a joint effort.

The next step is likely to be limited self-driving capabilities on highways. Toyota is testing a modified Lexus GS that it calls "Highway Teammate," the car pictured above. It can merge onto and exit highways, maintain and change lanes, and keep a set distance from other cars.

Toyota said in a statement that it plans to launch "products based on Highway Teammate" by "around 2020." Between now and then, expect more steps toward self-driving cars from Toyota -- and its rivals.

John Rosevear owns shares of -- and The Motley Fool recommends -- General Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.