Toyota allots $1 billion to develop new AI, robotics technologies

With the launch of the Toyota Research Institute in Silicon Valley, the automaker hopes to develop advanced vehicle-based technologies that could also someday assist the elderly.

The Toyota Motor Corporation is doubling down on its commitment to develop advanced artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics systems.

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The Japanese automaker said Friday it is launching the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), a business unit dedicated to building out advanced vehicle-based technologies that will make automobiles safer to drive.

To support these efforts, Toyota plans to pump $1 billion into TRI over the next five years, as well as establish a new headquarters for the company near Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, with a secondary facility near MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Toyota originally announced research partnerships with the universities in early September, along with an initial investment of $50 million. At the time, Gill Pratt, a leading roboticist and the former program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), joined Toyota to oversee the project.

Pratt is now slated to become the director of the TRI. In a statement, Pratt said Toyota has three main goals with the massive funding and research endeavor:

  1. improve safety by continuously decreasing the likelihood that a car will be involved in an accident;
  2. make driving accessible to everyone, regardless of ability;
  3. apply Toyota technology used for outdoor mobility to indoor environments, particularly for the support of seniors.

Pratt said Toyota will also work to apply the research and technology more broadly "to improve production efficiency and accelerate scientific discovery in materials."

The third goal regarding senior citizens may come as a surprise, but Toyota has been working on the development of robotic helpers for the aging population for several years now. For instance, the automaker successfully developed the Human Support Robot to help the disabled or elderly live independently, as well as a range of prototype bots with the same goal.

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Looking back to the automotive side, it's clear Toyota's AI all follows the similar theme of human assistance. Unlike Google or Uber, Toyota is steering its research toward technologies that will aid human drivers, rather than replace them altogether.

For example, if a driver becomes distracted and begins to veer into another lane toward another vehicle, the intelligent vehicle system would sense the surroundings and correct the vehicle's trajectory. Toyota and its researchers see this type of driver-assistant technology as more attainable in the short term compared to full blown autonomous vehicles.

Toyota plans to have the new company up and running in January 2016.