Drivers Optional

Ready for the day when you can let your car take the wheel? The Lexus LS 460L promises that day will be here sooner than you think.

By John Tayman, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- First things first. As abundantly advertised, the Lexus LS 460L can park itself. Or, more accurately, it can use an array of onboard ultrasonic sensors, miniature cameras, electric motors, and vehicle-detection technology to help you shimmy the sedan into a space no less than 4 feet longer than its almost 17-foot-long self.

The process is not the gee-wizardry portrayed on the tube, but it's nonetheless a boon to the lazy or insecure driver. More important, it's a herald of our automotive future.

DRIVERS OPTIONAL: The LS uses radar sensors to speed or slow you as needed, and a satellite system to reroute you around traffic jams.

Allow me a moment to deflate the conventional wisdom of car reviews, which take as an article of faith that the public enjoys driving high-powered, tightly sprung, manually shifting vehicles.

In fact, it doesn't. In further fact, many people don't like to drive at all, at least not on their workaday commutes, which is what American drivers do in their cars 83.4 percent of the time.(I made up that last figure, but you get my drift.)Rather, what many drivers crave is a car smart enough to drive them - a Jetsons-style luxury pod that purrs forth from the garage and delivers its human cargo to their destination suitably calm and cosseted.

Well, folks, I have good news: The LS 460L is damned close to being such a car. It is, arguably, the most intelligent production vehicle ever offered for sale. I could cite dozens of examples of just how sentient this car is - and I inevitably will - but here's one small tease: It can tell if you're getting amorous in the backseat.

Moreover, after the infrared matrix sensor mounted in the ceiling scans the heaving chests and tingly areas of any pawing passengers, it will communicate skin-surface temperature readings along 11 high-speed networks to 72 ECUs, signaling the climate system to gradually cool the rear passenger zones (if occupants in dishabille are getting too steamy) or gently heat the same zone (if said occupants are getting a bit chilly).

Also, the Lexus will pump cool air into the built-in backseat icebox, where, no doubt, a split of postswirl bubbly awaits.

Tragically, the only action the LS saw while in my care was that of a slumbering Labrador, so such accommodation was wasted. No matter - the car took care of me in myriad other ways.

For one, the Lexus essentially drove itself, effortlessly covering - to cite one excursion - 100 miles of highway and winding lanes from San Francisco to the northern reaches of wine country. This was no simple feat. In an attempt to best the best offerings from Mercedes and BMW (Charts), Lexus embedded the world's first eight-speed automatic transmission in the LS and then swaddled it with enough technology to allow it to "learn" how you drive, so that it might replicate the experience.

Thus, during my first hour in the car, sensors took note of my throttle and brake action, and my quick turn-ins and fast blast-offs. After processing this data, the Lexus proceeded to take over, mimicking and then improving on my driving patterns - kind of like HAL relieving Dr. Dave Bowman of his pesky spaceship duties.(Before attempting to kill him.)

Anyway, the result of this omniscience is a car in which you never feel an errant shift or sidelong drift, and never really put yourself or the sedan at risk. Lexus claims that its goal was to build "a vehicle that does not cause accidents."

To that end, various versions of the LS will soon employ a steering-wheel-mounted camera and image-recognition technology, to see if the driver's eyes are on the road. If the pesky human nods off (or starts watching the carbon-based action in the backseat), and if the LS's bevy of radars and ultrasonic sensors determine that he's about to smack a deer or another car, it will sound a warning, pre-tense the seatbelts, tighten the suspension for evasive maneuvers, and ready the brakes for maximum bite.

Imminent rear-enders will spark a similar shakedown, including the activation of "intelligent" headrests, which instantly reposition themselves to minimize whiplash. (Unfortunately, FCC regs have delayed the introduction of some of these features in U.S. models, but Lexus remains hopeful. Write your congressman.)

Now, if all this sounds as though the LS intends to render the driver moot, it does. On my weekend jaunt, my presence was barely required. I merely tapped a destination into the GPS, set the adaptive cruise control to 85, and pointed the nose north.

Then, for almost two hours, I never touched the gas or brake - the Lexus used radar sensors to handle the traffic, speeding and slowing as needed, and employed a satellite system that pulls data from various traffic cams, police scanners, and departments of transportation to reroute us around potential trouble spots.

Meanwhile, I happily ripped CDs into the LS's 30-gig hard drive, twiddled with the 450-watt sound system, listened to an audiobook, and figured out how to set the rear seats to massage the dog.

Next thing I knew, our commute was over, and the car was beeping that it had spied an open parking spot. By this time the dog was wondering where the nearest tree might be, so I eased to a start point a few feet in front of the empty space (the car lets you know exactly where, natch), dropped it into reverse, tapped a button on the GPS screen, and released the wheel, which spun with ghostly purpose until the Lexus was perfectly parked - at which point it pinged, settled a fraction of an inch, and announced, with authority, "You have arrived at your destination."

Yes, I suppose we have.

John Tayman, a contributing writer for Business 2.0, is the author of "The Colony" (


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