First drive: Lexus Teammate driver-assistance system wants to know you’re there

June 8, 2021

Lexus’s Teammate driver-assistance system flashed red at me and grew impatient. As I ignored its alerts to take control of the steering wheel, it rang audible alerts in increasing levels of alarm. 

I wanted to see if I could game the hands-free driving system, but Teammate wouldn’t have it. 

Several swift tugs to the shoulder seat belt of the Lexus LS500h test vehicle snapped me to attention. I put my hands back on the wheel, my foot on the accelerator, then waited until the display turned blue to resume using the effective but conservative semi-autonomous driving system. 

Conservative is not a criticism when it comes to easing the fatigue of long road trips and, by extension, road safety. Deemed a Level 2 system on the SAE’s five levels of driving autonomy, Teammate is an enhancement of adaptive cruise control that is offered on many new cars on sale today. 

2022 Lexus LS 500h AWD with Teammate

2022 Lexus LS 500h AWD with Teammate

In a limited 30-minute demo on the sprawling concrete plains outside of Toyota Motors North America’s headquarters in Plano, Texas, the LS 500h test vehicle proved the system more than safe to use. It’s not as confident as GM’s Super Cruise rolling out in more Cadillac vehicles, nor is it as easy to manipulate as Tesla’s Autopilot offered across its lineup. But it has difficulty working when the driver wears polarized sunglasses.  

For now, with rollout limited this fall to the low volume 2022 Lexus LS 500h flagship hybrid sedan with all-wheel drive, it feels as if Lexus is gauging the system’s permissiveness. Last year, only 3,617 people bought the LS 500 in the U.S., marking the worst year of sales since the luxury liner launched. Only 66 of them were the hybrid model.

So why launch Teammate in the 2022 LS 500h AWD? 

“It’s our flagship system in our flagship vehicle,” said Derek Caveney, executive engineer at Toyota Motors North America.

It feels more like a trial run. GM did the same when it launched Super Cruise late in 2017 for the 2018 Cadillac CT6 flagship sedan. In 2019, Cadillac discontinued the CT6, but Super Cruise migrated to the 2021 Escalade full-size SUV, Cadillac’s most popular model, and rollout continues in the CT4 and CT5 sedans.

Lexus will offer Teammate on all its hybrids, eventually, with every model having an electrified variant by 2025. But the team has some kinks to work out.  

How it works

Teammate reflects the ethos of a company known for rolling out new technology incrementally if not slowly. While Teammate includes Advanced Park that helps park the car, we only tested the Advanced Drive component on the highway. Using sensors surrounding the car, a front-facing long-range LiDAR system, short-range radar on the sides, and a series of cameras, including a driver-facing monitor mounted on the steering column same as Super Cruise, Teammate can offer several minutes of hands-free driving under the right conditions.

2022 Lexus LS 500h AWD with Teammate

2022 Lexus LS 500h AWD with Teammate

Unlike Super Cruise or Tesla’s Autopilot that can go for much longer stretches of time, Teammate will request the driver to touch the steering wheel periodically, but Toyota wouldn’t say how frequently. Every ten minutes would be the most generous estimate; on our route, past many ramps and merges, it was a couple of minutes. 

Toyota also wouldn’t disclose the breadth of Teammate’s capability on highways with on- and off-ramp across the U.S. through its partnership with TomTom. 

“Mapping is on the same scale as GM, so over 100,000 miles but under 300,000 miles,” Caveney explained. “We’re targeting all limited access highways.”

The Advanced Drive component can be activated with or without navigation; with navigation set, the system can be more predictive by adjusting speeds at flyovers, for instance, and the display on the right side of the cluster will list how many tenths of a mile left until the system will deactivate due to an off-ramp. 

2022 Lexus LS 500h AWD with Teammate

2022 Lexus LS 500h AWD with Teammate

It can be used without setting the navigation, as easy as setting the adaptive cruise control. Press the ACC icon and when the system is ready a message will appear that says “Advanced Drive ready.” When the cluster display turns from gray to blue, the voice will say “Advanced Drive activated.” 

You always know what the system is doing, from the large steering wheel icon in the display to the excellent head-up display projecting the lanes, surrounding traffic, and system status. The cluster projection shows the outline of semis so you know if a semi is merging in your blind spots, for example.

It reads lanes well and maintains the center, and could pass by off-ramps without getting confused or requiring intervention. With merging, it will slow down accordingly, but require a touch on the steering wheel to know you’re there.

2022 Lexus LS 500h AWD with Teammate

2022 Lexus LS 500h AWD with Teammate

The capacitive touch wheel has sensors integrated with the heating element, so gently tapping anywhere on the wheel is enough to placate the system. But the system needs continuous reassurances.  

The automatic lane change function requires a light hand on the steering wheel; you’re not steering though but you might as well be if you have to touch the wheel. 

When the system requires you to take over, an alert will pop up in the cluster, followed by an audible reminder. A hand needs to go to the wheel, a foot needs to go on the pedal, and you must be looking at the road ahead to satisfy takeover at an off-ramp, for instance. Restarting the system with a button push is as easy as restarting adaptive cruise control. 

The conservative nature of the system is fit for people interested in the technology but not willing to cede total control to the machine. It’s the anti-Autopilot. 

2022 Lexus LS 500h AWD with Teammate

2022 Lexus LS 500h AWD with Teammate

A glaring problem

Teammate lends a hand on road trips, as designed, but it can’t overcome one glaring problem: the driver-facing camera is very sensitive. 

It wouldn’t allow hands-free driving when I had on my polarized Ray-Bans, which are a pretty basic set of sunglasses. Other testers said the same about their Maui Jims and other off-brand shades. But, the Toyota/Lexus rep giving my demo with prescription sunglasses worked fine.

Most road trippers will be driving during the day and wearing sunglasses, so it’s a problem TMNA is aware of. It doesn’t sound like it will be overcome when the 2022 LS 500h AWD goes on sale this fall, despite over-the-air updates multiple times a year to keep the system fresh. Teammate can still be enabled, but it will ask for a hand on the wheel. 

A temporary solution until the issue is fixed is for Lexus to provide all owners of Teammate a pair of approved sunglasses, or at the least a recommended list of brands.

Tesla’s mislabeled Autopilot is like the wild west of limited hands-free driving systems since it doesn’t have a driver monitor. Cadillac’s Super Cruise is much more confident in extended hands-free highway driving. With Ford’s Blue Cruise set to launch this year, Lexus needs to fix its driver monitor to maintain a competitive advantage in the future.

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