This month, Toyota Research Institute Inc. is establishing a new company to focus its self-driving car efforts. The TRI-AD unit is a joint venture between Toyota Motor Corp., Aisin Seiki Co., and Denso Corp., and it plans to spend ¥300 billion ($2.81 billion U.S.) developing software for automated vehicles.
Such vehicles promise to disrupt personal and public transportation, delivery (both long-distance and last-mile), and automotive ownership levels. Regulators are still devising responses, but the global self-driving car market could reach $20 billion by 2024, predicts Variant Market Research.
Toyota named James Kuffner as the CEO of TRI-Advanced Development (TRI-AD). He previously worked at Google Inc. and is chief technology officer at Toyota Research Institute (TRI). Google (now part of Alphabet) spun out its own self-driving car unit as Waymo in 2016. TRI-AD plans to hire 1,000 people from its partner companies and externally.
Kuffner, who has spoken at RoboBusiness and our robotics conference at the Consumer Electronics Show, and his team responded to the following questions from Robotics Business Review:
What’s the relationship between the Toyota Research Institute and TRI-Advanced Development?
TRI-AD will be located in Tokyo and is a separate company from TRI. It is an expansion of the original investment in TRI, and the two companies will be intertwined, virtually working like one to create true, production-quality software. TRI will continue to be responsible for research. TRI-AD is responsible for advanced development.
Further, TRI-AD will strengthen collaboration within the Toyota Group and link TRI research results to product development.
What resources will Denso and Aisin Seiki be providing to the partnership?
Denso and Aisin have made financial investments — 5% each — and will be providing expertise through several staff members transferring to the new company.
Where will most of your staff be located? What skills are you looking for in new hires?
The company will be based in the vibrant heart of Tokyo, Japan. We are seeking to attract and retain some of the world’s best software engineers from around the globe.
In addition to strong software engineering skills, TRI-AD is looking to hire people with expertise in the development of automated driving and advanced safety systems. The official language of the company will be English, so the ability to communicate in English will also be required.
How is your approach different from that of other automakers and tech companies pursuing autonomous vehicles?
Toyota is pursuing a unique “Mobility Teammate Concept” that hopes to build a relationship between humans and cars. This is a relationship where the fun of driving is combined with automation, and where humans and cars work in partnership to realize the same goal, sometimes watching over each other, and sometimes helping each other out.
We are conducting research and development of automated driving systems based on two approaches: Chauffeur and Guardian.
Chauffeur is our version of full vehicle autonomy where all occupants are passengers as the car drives itself.
Guardian is high-level safe-driving support. In this approach, the human driver maintains vehicle control, and the automated driving system operates in the background, monitoring for potential crash situations. It can intervene to protect vehicle occupants when needed and safely hand-back control to the driver.
We’ve talked before about Toyota’s devotion to quality and safety. How will this be reflected in your development process?
The goal of the new company will be deliver software of a quality worthy of the Toyota brand. We will follow Toyota’s core development principles to deliver rigorously-tested, automotive-grade software libraries suitable for launching products with a high degree of safety and reliability.
Toyota has been promoting itself as a “mobility company” — how does TRI-AD serve this goal, and could its technologies be used in other applications, such as service robots?
One of the primary reasons for the creation of TRI-AD is to expedite Toyota’s transition from an automobile company to a mobility company.
The overarching vision of TRI-AD is to use modern cloud-based tools and agile processes for creating production-quality software, which can be applied to both automated vehicles and robotics.
How much will TRI-AD need to work with the automotive manufacturing side on the components for smart vehicles such as sensors?
TRI researchers evaluate and test advanced suites of sensors used in automated vehicles — LIDAR, radar, and cameras — and make hardware technology recommendations within the Toyota Group. TRI-AD will be a bridge to manage the flow from hardware to software toward advanced development of a complete platform suitable for mass production.
What time frame do you think is possible for TRI-AD to deliver a Level 4 or 5 autonomous vehicle?
Toyota has not announced a timeline, but we can say the technology overall is still a few years away from deployment.
However, we think the Guardian approach, which does not map to the current SAE [Society of Automotive Engineers] levels, can be deployed more immediately for saving lives. Guardian builds upon the advanced safety technology currently available in vehicles — such as Automatic Emergency Braking, which is standard in nearly every Toyota and Lexus sold in America — adding sensors and cameras as appropriate, to make driving safer.
Do you anticipate fleets of autonomous vehicles for, say, mass transit or delivery, before self-driving passenger cars?
If by “passenger cars,” you mean personally-owned vehicles, yes we do. The technology cost is currently high, so we expect many Level 4 vehicles will be used in mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) applications, which can generate income and amortize these costs much quicker than personally-owned vehicles. We think Guardian is a more likely solution for personally owned vehicles in the near term.