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Auto Makers, Tech Giants Ally With Universities for Self-Driving Innovation

November 12, 2015

Toyota Motor Corporation recently announced a five-year, $1 billion investment in robotics and artificial intelligence R&D in the U.S. Under the plan, a headquarters for the effort will be located near Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA with a second location near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA. Dr. Gill Pratt, former program director at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will lead the effort. As reported in The New York Times, the investment is seen as Toyota’s effort to compete with other companies that are embracing intelligent and self-driving automotive technology. Ford, Uber, Google and others have all recently announced investments in the future of the automobile industry that reflect particular visions of how innovative technologies emerge.

In September, Toyota announced a $50 million investment at Stanford and M.I.T., oriented toward intelligent automotive software development. That five-year effort will continue, and will involve the creation of joint fundamental artificial intelligence research centers at each university. In addition, Toyota will launch a new company, Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which will have locations near Stanford and M.I.T. to help bridge the gap between that fundamental research and product development.

Toyota’s initial focus with this investment is intelligent automotive systems. Intelligent technology differs from the self-driving cars being designed by Google and Tesla in that human drivers are intended to be kept involved in the process while being assisted by artificial-intelligence-based monitoring systems. The company will also be developing new manufacturing systems, and hopes that this research could lead to the development of a new industry around artificial intelligence. This includes the use of intelligent technologies to provide outdoor mobility and indoor environments, particularly for seniors.

Toyota’s announcement is the latest in a series of large-scale investments in the future of the automobiles and artificial intelligence, all of which have reflected a specific vision of how innovation makes its way to the marketplace. Last month, Ford announced it would invest $1.8 billion in R&D at its research centers in China to develop autonomous driving and connectivity features for the Chinese market. In January, Ford opened its own Silicon Valley research center and partnership with Stanford to develop technologies around connectivity, autonomous driving. While Ford’s development of the self-driving Ford Focus Hybrid is said to be centered at its research campus in Dearborne, MI, the company believes that it will have the largest automotive research facility in Silicon Valley by the end of this year.

While these automotive giants are investing heavily in research partnerships with high-profile research universities and nearby campuses, other potential players in the field are putting together their own innovation pipelines. In February, Uber hired 40 professors away from Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center for its own Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, later donating $5.5 million to the university to fund a new robotics faculty chair and three fellowships, according to Fortune. Uber also appears to be building its stockpile of innovative driving technologies through partnerships with companies, such as TomTom and Microsoft, according to The Verge.

manufacturing, r&d