Toyota builds plenty of popular camping vehicles, like the Tacoma pickup and 4Runner SUV. And the company just announced they are working on a hitchless towing system that could be a groundbreaking feat for camping and other applications.
According to Paul Fanson, senior manager of Toyota Motor North America Research and Design's Advanced Product Planning Office, the system "allows two vehicles to play follow the leader." A human would operate a lead vehicle. The following vehicle, operating autonomously, would follow behind it like a trailer but without a physical connection.
Toyota says hitchless towing is in the "initial test phase" and that testing for hitchless towing on public roads is "on the horizon."
This technology seems feasible. Manufacturers have been developing autonomous controls for vehicles. The sticking point with self-driving vehicles is not getting the car to move by itself. It's higher-order functions like getting it to navigate through a complex traffic situation in bad weather. Locking onto the vehicle in front and letting the human figure it out should be much easier.
Hitchless towing would have some clear benefits beyond not dealing with a hitch. The lead vehicle would not be physically towing. So, theoretically, vehicle size wouldn't matter, and you would not need a huge truck or SUV to do the job. And as we move to a mostly EV world, the following vehicle would not drain the lead vehicle's range (currently a significant concern towing with EVs).
But a potential drawback is that the following vehicle — even if it would conserve energy by slipstreaming — would require a propulsion system that would allow it to keep up with and match the range of a car. That would add cost and complexity to trailer design. The small camping trailer of the future might look something like a super-aerodynamic rooftop cargo box riding on an EV skateboard platform.