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Toyota demos radical, autonomous ‘hitch-free towing’ tech

Toyota has taken inspiration from the world of autonomous truck platooning for a forward-thinking towing concept.

Demonstrated at the American Center for Mobility in Detroit, and reported by CarScoops, the “hitchless towing” project envisions a world where a car could lead and have a powered trailer autonomously follow.

The concept was shown off using two Sienna minivans, one of which autonomously followed the other at a safe distance. When the front car brakes, accelerates, or steers, the rear car follows in formation.

As you can see from the video above, the two cars are split by a huge gap at the moment. The latter car also carries a safety driver at the moment.

When the project progresses Toyota reportedly expects the gap to shrink to the point where, rather than leaving a yawning chasm between vehicles, one can follow in the other’s shadow.

As for potential applications? Toyota suggests it would allow people to have their second car – think campers and the Suzuki Grand Vitara they tow behind their RVs – follow in the footsteps of their first more easily.

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Camera IconSupplied Credit: CarExpert

CarScoops reports Toyota also suggests a powered “tow module” could be attached to heavy trailers, allowing them to follow another car under their own power.

Rather than sapping the battery of your electric vehicle by trying to tow a boat or caravan, the tow module could allow owners to get their heavy trailer where it needs to go more efficiently. The brand has offered no details of what that module would look like, or how it would be powered.

Although more range from the base tow vehicle can only be a good thing, an electric trailer would require a pretty serious battery to carry a 3.5-tonne trailer long distance.

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Camera IconSupplied Credit: CarExpert

The hitch-free towing idea borrows from the world of autonomous trucking, where platooning has long been pitched as a fuel-saving, accident-reducing boon for big fleet operators.

Platooning involves connected trucks running close to each other – between 12 and 20m – for improved efficiency.

Systems like this have been trialled in Europe on autonomous trucks developed from the ground-up for platooning, although an American company called Peloton also offers a version of the technology that can be retrofit to existing big rigs.

When the trucks are linked, the rear driver can take their feet off the pedals. When the truck in front slows, the rear automatically follows – like a more advanced, fast-reacting take on the radar-based cruise systems in current vehicles.

Peloton says its system allows the rear truck to react to front inputs in just 0.4 seconds, compared to 1.4 seconds for a human driver.

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