Toyota is investing USD 1 billion in a research company it’s setting up in Silicon Valley to develop artificial intelligence and robotics, underlining the Japanese automaker’s determination to lead in futuristic cars that drive themselves and apply the technology to other areas of daily life.
Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda said Friday the company will start operating from January 2016, with 200 employees at a Silicon Valley facility near Stanford University, with a second facility near Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
The investment, which will be spread over five years, comes on top of USD 50 million Toyota announced earlier for artificial intelligence research at Stanford and MIT.
Toyota said its interest extended beyond autonomous driving, which is starting to be offered by some automakers and being promised by almost all of them. The technology was pointing to a new industry for everyday use, delivering a safer lifestyle overall, it said.
Toyota has already shown an R2-D2-like robot that scoots around and picks up things for people, designed to help the elderly, the sick and people in wheelchairs. It has also shown human-shaped entertainment robots that can carry on conversations and play musical instruments.
As the world’s top auto manufacturer, Toyota already uses sophisticated robotic arms and computers in auto production, including doing paint jobs and screwing in parts.
To drive home the message his vision was more than about just cars, Toyoda appeared at a Tokyo hotel with high profile robotics expert Gill Pratt, who will head the new organization called Toyota Research Institute Inc.
Pratt was formerly a program manager at the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and joined Toyota as a technical adviser when it set up its AI research effort at Stanford and MIT.
He said the company’s goals are to support older people in their homes with robotics, make cars free of accidents and use AI to allow all people to drive regardless of ability.
Pratt gave three examples from his personal life that motivate him to develop robotics and related technology: when he was a child, seeing a boy on a bicycle killed by a car; telling his 83-year-old father he could no longer drive; and sending his father to a nursing home when he was 84.
Pratt, who grew up on Japanese robot animation and dreamed of one day building such robots, said he chose Toyota over other jobs because it was “so focused on social good.”