Toyota introduces its “dream team” for vehicle autonomy and advanced research

  • 06-Jan-2016 01:34 EST
Toyota TRI team 5Jan16.JPG

CEO Dr. Gill Pratt (seated at far left) speaks with six of his initial TRI expert colleagues during a panel discussion at CES. From Dr. Pratt's left are Larry Jackel, Eric Krotkov, James Kuffner, John Leonard, Hiroshi Okajima, and Russ Tedrake. (Lindsay Brooke) 

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), the automaker’s new advanced research group based in the U.S., on January 5 introduced the initial technical team that will guide the $1 billion venture into autonomous vehicle technologies, artificial intelligence, materials science, robotics, and more.

“Software and data are now central to Toyota’s mobility strategy,” said Dr. Gill Pratt, TRI’s CEO, during a press conference at the 2016 CES in Las Vegas. “The scale of Toyota’s commitment reflects our belief in the importance of developing safe and reliable automated mobility systems. Simply put, we believe we can significantly improve the quality of life for all people, regardless of age, with mobility products in all aspects of life.”

Dr. Pratt is former program manager for robotics at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). His initial technical team includes Eric Krotkov, a former Carnegie Mellon University professor and DARPA program manager who serves as Chief Operating Officer; James Kuffner, the former head of Google Robotics who wrote route-planning software for the Google car project; Larry Jackel, former Bell Labs department head and DARPA program manager; former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor John Leonard; Brian Storey, a mechanical engineering professor from Olin College of Engineering; Russ Tedrake, an MIT associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science; and Toyota R&D Project General Manager Hiroshi Okajima, who will serve as TRI’s Executive Liaison Officer.

All six are salaried TRI employees. Leonard, Storey, and Tedrake will work part time with TRI and continue in their university roles. Dr. Pratt said more experts will be added, including those representing the public-policy and social sciences disciplines.

A separate eight-member advisory board will be chaired by John Roos, the former U.S. ambassador to Japan. The board also includes former U.S. Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig, an expert in cybersecurity; Bran Ferren, the former President of R&D at Walt Disney Imagineering, and the directors of artificial intelligence laboratories at MIT and Stanford University.

Part of Toyota’s initial five-year, $1 billion investment in TRI includes $50 million to open two research centers located in Palo Alto, CA, and Cambridge, MA, “within a 10-minute bike ride from Stanford and MIT,” Dr. Pratt said. The initial team members will relocate to those locations.

TRI already has nearly 30 research projects underway. Dr. Pratt told Automotive Engineering that TRI’s goals include the advancement of automated-driving technologies particularly as they can help elderly and disable drivers and achieve the long-term goal of zero vehicle crashes. He also is a strong advocate for open interface standards to improve how vehicles communicate with pedestrians. 

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