TOKYO -- Silicon Valley tech giants such as Google and Apple have deftly marshaled their software expertise to muscle in on the traditional car industry. Now Toyota Motor Corp. is pushing back with a $1 billion initiative on their home turf.
To lead the push, the Japanese juggernaut has tapped an American car guy who happens to be one of country's foremost experts in robotics and artificial intelligence.
Gill Pratt, who was a program manager for robotics at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, says Toyota's grand plan is part of a business diversification ordered by CEO Akio Toyoda.
"It's not just a probe. It's a huge effort," Pratt told Automotive News. "There is a desire for [Toyota] to add software to the repertoire of what it's great at, from Akio on down."
The investment, announced Friday, Nov. 6, establishes a U.S. r&d company that will develop artificial intelligence systems, which Toyota hopes will guide autonomous vehicles and other products, such as household robots. More broadly Toyota wants to be a leader in programming software, just as it is in automotive hardware.
Pratt, 54, isn't shy in sharing his very personal reasons for wanting to help retool Toyota into a software player.
As a child, he witnessed another boy run down and killed in the street by a car. More recently, he felt his elderly father's pangs of indignity when his children finally took away the car keys and then moved him out of his house to a nursing home.
Toyota's vision for autonomous driving and domestic helper robots promised more pleasant transitions for such life crossroads.
Now Pratt will steer the effort as CEO of Toyota Research Institute Inc., the company Toyota will ramp up over the next five years to develop artificial intelligence and robotics.
"It's a question of whether we can leverage the incredible skills that we have in design, manufacturing and support into other fields and weave software into what the company's good at," Pratt said. "And I think the answer might be yes."