Toyota Investing $2.8B in Self-Driving Software Firm

Toyota hopes its new autonomous-driving software company will help it compete in that red-hot technology sector against rivals old and new.Toyota and two automotive components suppliers will invest more than 300 billion yen ($2.8 billion) in the new company, Toyota Research Institute-Advanced Development (TRI-AD). One of their first tasks will be to recruit self-driving technology experts from around the world, growing to about 1,000 employees.

The fight to be first in self-driving cars pits giant automakers against huge technology companies and has created fierce competition for engineers who can develop autonomous systems and software. The race for talent is part of what led Waymo and Uber into court last month and has sent salaries for some jobs in Silicon Valley above $400,000.

Toyota has had some wins in this game. To build its Silicon Valley robotics and AI research operation, Toyota Research Institute, starting in 2015, it hired James Kuffner from Google’s self-driving car operation and Gill Pratt from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Now Kuffner will run TRI-AD, which will be based in Tokyo and focused on software, while Pratt remains in charge of the California operation.

The world’s major automakers are aggressively developing autonomous car technology, racing among themselves and against tech giants like Waymo, Uber and China’s Baidu to corner the biggest automotive shift since cars were invented.

Toyota is by some measures the largest car manufacturer in the world, making about 10 million vehicles per year. It was a pioneer in lean manufacturing, a method of cutting waste and saving time in factories and supply chains. Now the company wants to streamline its software development through methods that sound a bit like Silicon Valley’s DevOps methodology, which is designed to make R&D teams work more closely with the production side.

There are more steps to iterating the code into car than in a mobile app, but Toyota, TRI and the new Tokyo-based company aim to work together to better translate research into reality. Toyota has been partnering, acquiring companies and demonstrating concepts in autonomous driving for years, even though rivals such as General Motors and Volkswagen Group sometimes get more attention. A Thomson Reuters report in 2016 said Toyota had 1,400 self-driving car patents, more than any other company.

Last September, Toyota demonstrated both a Level 4 self-driving system called Chauffeur, for cars to drive themselves in certain geographic areas, and a driver assistance system called Guardian that would work in less advanced cars. Guardian could alert drivers to hazards and step in with crash avoidance if necessary. At International CES earlier this year, Toyota introduced the e-Palette Concept Vehicle, a flexible self-driving platform that’s designed to be adapted for uses that could include ride-sharing, pizza delivery, stores on wheels and mobile living spaces.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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