World’s largest car manufacturer, Toyota, announced today that it is establishing a new company, the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), to develop AI technologies in two main areas: autonomous cars and robot helpers for around the home. The company plans to pump $1 billion into TRI over the next five years, and will be establishing headquarters for the company near Stanford University in California, with a secondary facility near MIT in Massachusetts.
Toyota originally announced academic partnerships with these universities last month along with $50 million in funding, but this new financing brings the company’s ambitions to another level. Leading TRI as its executive technical advisor and CEO will be Dr Gill Pratt, the man behind DARPA’s Robotics Challenge. In a press release, Pratt said the company’s initial goals are to decrease the likelihood of car accidents, make driving accessible to everyone “regardless of ability,” and bring extra mobility to the home — “particularly for the support of seniors.”
As these first comments suggest, Toyota’s vision for self-driving cars differs somewhat from Google and Uber’s. Rather than chasing fully-autonomous vehicles that chauffeur passengers, Toyota has always stressed the importance of keeping human agency in driving while introducing computer systems that make cars safer.
“Our long-term goal is to make a car that is never responsible for a crash,” Pratt told IEEE Spectrum last month, adding thar “a car that is never responsible for a crash, regardless of the skill of the driver, will allow older people to be able to drive, and help prevent the one and a half million deaths that occur as a result of cars every single year around the world.”
Dovetailing with this ambition is the goal of indoor mobility for seniors. Japan’s rapidly aging population is a crisis in the making (the number of over-65s is expected to go from 25 percent to 40 percent in the next 30 years), and there are similar problems facing America (over-65s will be around 20 percent of the US population by 2030).
Toyota has been developing robotic helpers for an aging population for years, including the Human Support Robot or HSR (which features an articulated torso and arm and video calling functionality), and prototype bots for assisted walking and moving people from the bed to the toilet. These may seem in a different world to self-driving cars, but both products rely on similar realms of AI research, including computer vision and machine learning. Conceptually, Toyota also sees a connection.
“If you think about the use of robotics within the home, it is the same as the use of vehicles when we travel on the road, except that instead of moving goods and people outdoors, you move them indoors,” Pratt told IEEE Spectrum.
“A lot of the same technology can be brought to bear. Toyota is also convinced that there should be a strong relationship between people and the machines that are helping them to move.”
Don’t expect any commercial products from TRI any time soon though. At the moment, Toyota says the company’s primary mission is to “accelerate R&D in a range of fields” and help “bridge the gap between fundamental research and product development.”
The company has previously stated that its current ambition is to get semi-autonomous cars on the road by 2020, although some have wondered whether the Japanese firm’s cautious attitude will let its Silicon Valley rivals pull ahead.