Toyota Commits $1 Billion to Develop AI

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TOKYO — Toyota Motor Corp. will invest $1 billion to form a U.S.-based r&d company to develop artificial intelligence as an underpinning technology for future vehicles and manufacturing.

The company, called Toyota Research Institute Inc., will be located in Silicon Valley near Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., Toyota said. Operations at the company will begin in January.

Another office will be set up near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge,Toyota said in a statement Thursday.

Gill Pratt, Toyota’s technical adviser and a former Pentagon robotics expert, will be the CEO of the new enterprise.

He aims to hire 200 employees over several years.

Outlining the new company at a Tokyo press conference, Pratt said TRI’s goals will be to develop systems that prevent traffic accidents, to make driving accessible to more people and to apply Toyota’s outdoor mobility technology to indoor scenarios.

“TRI will aim to develop technology … to expand Toyota’s boundaries to positively impact society,” Pratt said. “Toyota will contribute to society by transforming from a successful hardware company to a new company that integrates software technology as well as builds the world’s best hardware.”

The technology will be channeled into cars that can help handicapped people or the elderly stay behind the wheel. It will also feed into at-home technologies such as helper robots.

It can even deliver expert high-performance driving experiences to drivers who don’t have the skill but still want the thrill.

“We do not have to give up fun to drive with autonomy. In fact, one can help the other,” Pratt said.

Toyota’s plans come on top of a move in September to spend $50 million over five years to set up joint research centers for artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.

“As technology continues to progress, so does our ability to improve products,” Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda said in the statement. “At Toyota, we do not pursue innovation simply because we can; we pursue it because we should.”

Pentagon links

At that time, Toyota tapped Pratt to manage the research. He has joined Toyota after serving as a robotics specialist for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, a Pentagon r&d division that has played a pivotal role in the development of self-driving cars.

Toyota is delving into artificial intelligence as the auto industry ramps up development of autonomously driving vehicles.

By spending so much money to bring the research in-house, Toyota is staking a claim to a field where high-tech companies such as Google had been stealing ground from automakers.

Artificial intelligence is seen as a key to making self-driving cars better filter the reams of data collected about their surrounding by sensors. It is critical to judging the erratic behavior of pedestrians, for instance, and can also adjust self-driving cars’ behavior to the mannerisms of their owners.

Toyota aims to have semi-autonomous vehicles on the market by 2020. Those cars would be able to merge onto highways, change lanes, pass cars and navigate to a destination by themselves.

Toyoda, an amateur race car driver has said in the past he wouldn’t be a true believer in autonomous driving until a self-driving car could be him in a race around Germany’s famed Nurburgring circuit. But he has recently changed his tune.

The reversal came after his company became a top sponsor of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

He initially envisioned cars equipped with ramps and special seats as ferrying the Paralympians to and from their events.

That changed after some told him they wanted to drive their own cars — and not be chauffeured.

“I was told by the athletes they want to drive cool cars, not just cars designed for handicapped people,” Toyoda said. “That made me realize that to convey the fun of driving to a wider spectrum of people, the use automated driving could have wider applications than what I originally imagined.”

‘An entirely new industry’

In an Oct. 29 interview at the Tokyo Motor Show, Toyoda said autonomous driving would diverge into two camps in coming years.

In one, cars would function as robots, self-driving people to their destinations and freeing the passengers to do other things during the commute. In the other, the new technology would make driving more fun for novices by helping them achieve high performance they normally couldn’t get from their cars.

“Autonomous driving technology will let drivers who are really interested in driving attain driving skills beyond their actual capabilities,” Toyoda told Automotive News. “There is a gap between the driver’s natural ability and what they want to attain. Autonomous driving will fill that gap.”

Toyota’s $1 billion investment will be made over five years to establish and staff the locations in Silicon Valley and Massachusetts and to conduct operations.

“Toyota believes artificial intelligence has significant potential to support future industrial technologies and the creation of an entirely new industry,” the statement said. “TRI will help bridge the gap between fundamental research and product development.”

Pratt said the race to develop artificial intelligence and autonomous cars is wide open. A later starter or even a non-tech company such as Toyota can leapfrog to the lead because the field is still so new.

“If the race is very long, who knows who will win,” Pratt said. “The trust is we are only at the beginning of this race.”

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