Toyota Motor Corp. is on a roll, spending $1 billion to kick-start its research on artificial intelligence and robotics in the U.S. The world’s second largest automaker (behind Volkswagen) is one of several companies working to develop those technologies, but its spending at leading American universities indicates that it intends to stay ahead of the pack.
In addition to the $50 million it has already given to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University for automotive research, Toyota announced that it will be spending $1 billion over the next five years on robotics and AI centers in Cambridge, Mass., and Palo Alto, Calif.
The new institute will work “to bridge the gap between fundamental research and development,” said John Hanson, a Toyota spokesman.
The company named Gill Pratt, who was the program manager for the DARPA Robotics Challenge, as the CEO of Toyota Research Institute Inc. (TRI). It will focus on automotive automation and assistive robots.
“Our initial goals are to improve safety by continuously decreasing the likelihood that a car will be involved in an accident; to make driving accessible to everyone, regardless of ability; and to apply Toyota technology used for outdoor mobility to indoor environments,” Pratt said.
“What are the advantages and disadvantages?” he asked hypothetically about new capabilities. “Should we turn this into a real component of a future car? Or, in the case of the robotics field, some new type of capability in a robot that might be used indoors?”
Toyota expects to hire about 200 engineers for TRI, but it hopes to avoid undercutting the academic research centers it has established at MIT and Stanford as Uber did with Carnegie Mellon University.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch predicts that the global market for robotics and AI will triple to $153 billion by 2020.
Toyota’s robots in development include the Human Support Robot, which can help patients and provide telepresence, and the Kirobo, which is a small humanoid road trip “companion” meant to sit in a car’s cupholder.
Readying startups to roll
Toyota recently launched a 13.5 billion yen ($111 million) fund for startups working on AI, robotics, and hydrogen power. The company didn’t mention self-driving cars, but AI and robotics are complementary technologies.
Toyota had said that its Highway Teammate technology, which is supposed to go into production by 2020, won’t fully replace drivers.
Instead, it would be more like a co-pilot, according to the company. Toyota has tested Highway Teammate in modified Lexus GS prototypes on the Shuto Expressway in Tokyo.
“There are some people who are looking at autonomous driving as the end goal,” said Hanson. “It is definitely off in the future. What we want to do is we want to start saving lives immediately.”
Still, Toyota has altered its terminology in the past month because of competitive pressures, describing its Mobility Teammate concept as “automated driving.” The first part of the Mobility Teammate model is “driving intelligence” through recognition and predictive systems.
The second part is “connected intelligence” using ITS Connect, a device that allows vehicles to communicate with one another and traffic lights. Toyota said the third element of Mobility Teammate is “interactive intelligence,” in which a vehicle can recognize a driver’s state and participate in a transfer of control between drivers and vehicles.
Before driving can be easier or more enjoyable, however, Toyota must overcome complexity and cost challenges. Mobility Teammate requires multiple Lidar sensors, cameras, radar, GPS capabilities, and pre-programmed maps.
Alternative fuel funding
Toyota is contributing 10 billion yen ($82.3 million) to the Mirai Creation Investment Limited Partnership. Mirai is Toyota’s new hydrogen-cell vehicle. The fund will support “enterprises and projects related to the production, supply, and use of hydrogen,” said the company.
Despite producing the hybrid gas-electric Prius, Toyota expects hydrogen rather than electric batteries to replace gasoline as the power source for its vehicles by 2050. However, there isn’t yet a distribution network in North America.
“We don’t see any battery technology that would allow us to … give customers a comparable driving experience [to gas-powered vehicles] at a reasonable price,” Craig Scott, national alternative fuel manager at Toyota, told Forbes.
He said that the “energy density” of hydrogen is superior to that of conventional battery technology, which is what Tesla is using for its vehicles. Audi, BMW, General Motors, Porshe, and Volkswagen are also developing electric vehicles.
Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. (SMBC) is providing 3.3 billion yen ($27.2 million), and asset management partner Sparx Group is contributing 200 million yen ($1.6 million). The partners plan to increase the fund to 50 billion yen ($411 million) by March 2016.
Toyota and Honda have received $25,000 from the Japanese government to research alternative energy sources, and in 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated a goal for Japan to become a “hydrogen society” in part to end its dependence on nuclear power and foreign oil.
The Japanese carmakers are also trying to stake out a segment that those focusing on gas- or electric-powered vehicles haven’t.
“It’s possible at the beginning of a car race that you may not be in the best position,” Pratt said. “It may be that other drivers are saying a whole lot about what their position is, and everyone may expect that a particular car will win. But of course, if the race is very long, who knows who will win? We’re going to work extremely hard.”