Toyota Research Institute: Creating the Future

Although the auto industry today is certainly a high-tech industry, let’s face it: It isn’t something that would be unfamiliar to Henry Ford. Cars, by and large, operate on petroleum-based fuel. Cars and controlled by pedals, levers and a steering mechanism.

What wouldn’t he recognize on today’s automobiles?

Some companies are pushing change. Change characteristic of the early 21st century, not the early 20th.

One is Toyota. And it is pushing exceedingly hard.

Toyota is bullish on hydrogen. Last year at CES the company announced that it was allowing all automakers—at no cost—access to its 5,680 global patents related to hydrogen. That’s 1,970 related to fuel-cell stacks, 290 for high-pressure hydrogen tanks, 3,350 to fuel cell system software control, and 70 for hydrogen production and supply.

2016 Toyota Mirai: the hydrogen future. . .now

Those patents were the results of work performed over 20 years. And Toyota put them out there, royalty-free.

As Bob Carter, Toyota Motor Sales Senior Vice President, Automotive Operations, put it this week at the 2016 CES, “Wood was replaced by coal, which was replaced by petroleum, which we believe will be replaced by hydrogen.”

This, so that, that so this. It’s about progress in terms of changing the way that cars and trucks are fueled.

But just as they’re working toward a future where there will be reduced greenhouse gases, they also believe that automotive safety is critical.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2013 32,719 people died in traffic crashes in the U.S.

So Carter said, “If you believe in trying to save more than 30,000 lives a year in the U.S. by creating cars incapable of causing a crash, you start exploring ways to work together as an industry, and get this technology to market as quickly as possible.”

So to put its stake—a $1-billion dollar stake—in the ground, last November Toyota announced the establishment of the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which is dedicated to advancing the state of knowledge in artificial intelligence and robotics.

There will be two sites, one in Palo Alto, California, and the other in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Offices that are within a close proximity—Dr. Gill Pratt, CEO of TRI and Toyota Executive Technical Advisor reckons the travel distance by bike and walking is on the order of 10 minutes—to Stanford and MIT, respectively. And Toyota has previously announced a five-year, $50-million commitment to those two schools, who are undertaking research projects that will have an effect on TRI activities.

Dr. Gill Pratt: “We need trillion-mile reliability.”

Pratt—who was previously at DARPA and whose work focuses on, not surprisingly, robotics and intelligent systems—has a step-by-step explanation of the development of autonomous driving systems that puts the challenges that the industry faces in context that is sometimes overlooked by those who make it seem as though autonomy is right around the proverbial corner:

“Every year, Toyota sells about 10 million vehicles around the world. Each travels about 10 thousand miles per year and lasts about 10 years. That means that the roughly 100 million Toyota cars and trucks in service at any given time travel a total of about 1 trillion miles per year.”

Pratt pointed out that much of the autonomous driving work and demonstrations have been done under conditions that are “not difficult.” That is, there are speeds, weather conditions and street and traffic complexities that aren’t representative of “the hard part” of driving.

L to R: Pratt, Jackel, Krotkov, Kuffner, Leonard, Okajima, and Tedrake at CES: a scientific dream team

Yes, Pratt acknowledges, many times drivers go from point A to point B without consciously thinking about it, as the conditions and the route are rather well established. That’s easy.

But when things are hard, concentration comes into play.

So back to the trillion miles (and remember, this is just Toyota, not all other car companies.)

Pratt: “We need trillion-mile reliability.”

Even if a small portion of the miles driven by autonomous vehicles are difficult, that’s a lot of difficulty.

So what’s TRI going to do?

Well, the first objective is to work on the safety of vehicles—meaning applying artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics functions—with the ultimate goal of “creating a car that is incapable of causing a crash.”

Which means autonomous and automated capabilities of the vehicle. This leads to a second undertaking, which is to make cars accessible to those who might otherwise not be able to drive them, such as handicapped or elderly people. If the vehicle can do the driving, then this can be accommodated.

Then there are two more objectives, which seem to be something of a swerve: take the robotics knowledge that’s being developed for exterior mobility (e.g., Camrys) and adapt it for indoor mobility: home robotics.

And, not losing sight of the fact that Toyota is—at least at present—a manufacturing company that makes things, a fourth area is the use of advanced computational techniques for the development of new materials. Pratt: “Humans have been discovering new materials since prehistoric times. But the pace of advancement is held back by the speed of human intuition and experiment.” So bring on the hardware and algorithms.

As for Toyota being a manufacturing company, a remark by Hiroshi Okajima, Project General Manager, R&D Management Division, Toyota Motor Corp., and Executive Liaison Officer for TRI, is worth noting: “We want to change Toyota from being a product company”—as in a company that produces cars, crossovers and trucks—“to a products, services and software company.”

TRI is going to be instrumental in that.

So to that end, TRI is engaging a number of leading scientists and researchers to form its staff. It brought some of them to CES, a group that is pretty much a who’s who in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics.

The chief operating officer of TRI is Eric Krotkov, former project manager at DARPA.

Larry Jackel is formerly with Bell Labs, and was a DARPA program manager in the area of Machine Learning.

You can’t discuss autonomous vehicles without Google getting mention, so there’s James Kuffner, who formerly headed up Google Robotics—he worked on the software for self-driving capability

There’s John Leonard, a professor at MIT. He focuses on autonomous driving.

And Russ Tedrake, an associate prof at MIT, who specializes in simulation and control.

There are other staff members and an array of board members.* Again, people with profound pedigrees in this autonomous space.

If you want to reduce emissions, then you set about to create the knowledge, knowhow and capabilities to produce hydrogen vehicles like the Toyota Mirai.

If you want to reduce accidents, then you create a research institution—and note well that this is research, not research and development: there are other people who have the responsibility for taking the output of TRI and transforming it into product—that is well-funded and staffed by people who are deeply committed to the art of their science.

If you want to change your company, then you associate with people who are complementary yet different in perspective, skill set and knowledge base.

If you want to change the industry, then you work across boundaries and facilitate transformation.


*The team also includes Brian Storey, professor of Mechanical Engineering, Olin College of Engineering

The board consists of:

  • John Roos, former CEO of Wilson Sonsini and former U.S. Ambassador to Japan. Currently, General Partner at Geodesic Capital, a late stage venture capital firm and Senior Advisor at Centerview Partners
  • Rodney Brooks, former director of the MIT Computer Science and AI Lab, founder of iRobot and Founder, Chairman and CTO of Rethink Robotics
  • Marc Benioff, CEO of
  • Richard Danzig, former U.S. Navy Secretary
  • Bran Ferren, former President of R & D at Walt Disney Imagineering and Chief Creative Officer of Applied Minds
  • Noboru Kikuchi (planned), Emeritus University of Michigan Professor, head of Toyota Central Research and Development Lab and the Toyota Research Institute of North America
  • Fei-Fei Li, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL)
  • Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory