TOKYO >> Toyota is investing $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 running in 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 $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.
Pratt said the company’s goals are to support older people in homes, not just outdoors, with robotics, as well as making cars free of accidents and having everyone driving regardless of ability.
It will be hiring researchers and engineers, according to Toyota. Wooing talent is crucial because not only are automakers, such as General Motors, Tesla and Nissan competing on autonomous driving but outsiders are as well, including Google, Apple and Uber.
Toyota, which has gone through troubled times with massive recalls and the 2011 tsunami in northeastern Japan, has the cash these days to invest in the future.
On Thursday, it kept its profit forecast for the fiscal year through March 2016 unchanged at 2.25 trillion yen ($18.5 billion), as profit rose on cost cuts and the benefits of a weak yen. The maker of the Prius hybrid and Camry sedan is on track to sell about 10 million vehicles around the world this year.
Toyoda, ranked by Forbes in this year’s "powerful people" list as the most powerful Japanese, said he looks forward to working with Pratt because they share a vision.