Toyota’s ambition is to have self-driving cars on the road by 2020, but rather than replace the driver, the automaker’s top priority is to help them drive safely.

“A completely autonomous car is not what we’re looking for,” said Seigo Kuzumaki, Toyota’s assistant chief safety technology officer, during a presentation to Automotive News. “Our priority is to reduce the number of accidents.”

Kuzumaki’s comments come as several automotive and tech companies are beginning to test fleets of self-driving vehicles on public roads.

Google was first with a ride-hailing service at its corporate headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Parts supplier Delphi Automotive has announced plans to launch fleet tests of self-driving taxis in Singapore, and Uber is launching a test fleet of self-driving Volvo taxis in Pittsburgh this year.

SEE ALSO: Uber Opens Up Self-Driving Car Rides to the General Public in Pittsburgh

And then there’s Tesla Motors, who says it cars would drive themselves as soon as the laws allow it.

In contrast, Toyota is developing what’s called Level 3 autonomous technology, in which a vehicle can accelerate, brake and steer itself for stretches on the highway.

Called Highway Teammate, Toyota intends to introduce the system in Japan in 2020.

The company has tested the feature in a modified Lexus GS on Tokyo’s Shuto Expressway, enabling automated driving on highways once the car enters the on-ramp all the way through to the off-ramp.

SEE ALSO: Ford Considering Development of Self-Driving Delivery Trucks

On-board technology evaluates traffic conditions, makes decisions, and takes action during highway driving, including merging, changing lanes, and maintaining a safe distance between vehicles.

The prototype car uses road map data and multiple external sensors to recognize nearby vehicles and hazards, and selects appropriate routes and lanes depending on the destination.

The company is also developing a similar system, called Urban Teammate, for use on city streets, Kuzumaki said. But he did not disclose the system’s launch date

For Toyota, this is a two-pronged approach: the long-term goal of fully autonomous cars, and near-term development into semi-autonomous technology to make driving safer now.

This might seem less ambitious than letting computers drive our cars, but it sounds more realistic and achievable for the near future.

Fully self-driving cars have come a long way, but they still have plenty of hurdles and frustrations to overcome, and it will take a while before they actually show up in dealer showrooms.

Toyota’s Highway Teammate could pave the way to fully autonomous driving technology, easing the transition.

Automotive News