Today's rides increasingly are becoming infused with the kind of artificial intelligence that once was the stuff only of comic books and James Bond movies. Now, Toyota is ramping up for an even more futuristic automotive scene by pumping $1 billion into a research and development laboratory in California's Silicon Valley. Dubbed the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), the initiative will hire hundreds of engineers to staff a main facility in Palo Alto, Calif., near Stanford University, and a second located near MIT in Cambridge, Mass.
Heading the TRI is former DARPA program manager Dr. Gill Pratt, an executive technical advisor at Toyota. As CEO, he'll rev up operations in January. At a recent press conference, Toyota president Akio Toyoda told members of the media that the company pursues innovation and new technologies "to make life better for our customers and society as a whole," adding that officials chose Gill to lead the TRI "not just because he's an amazing researcher and engineer, but because I believe his goals and motivations are the same as ours."
Among the products already in development are the iRoad, a three-wheeled electric concept that Toyota is testing in several cities; the Human Support Robot, designed to help people at home; and an autonomous test vehicle that Lexus, a Toyota division, demonstrated last month.
Similar products no doubt will be developed at TRI, which will focus on AI applications aimed at smarter and safer vehicles, as well as robots designed to lend a hand at home, particularly for the aging and elderly populations. Of course, plans also include autonomous vehicles, but not at the cost of the thrill of the drive.
"Our belief is that you actually don't have to give up the joy of driving, and in fact we can make the joy of driving much safer, and much more available to all kinds of people across a very wide spectrum," Gill said. "But we're not also shutting off the idea that some of the time you actually want the car to take over from you and to either drive on a highway on its own or drive in a parking lot by itself, or maybe if you’re too tired to drive home, to take the lead for you."
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