Beam Me Up! -- In Detroit in January, Toyota revealed its partnership with Kymeta, a U.S.-based company that has developed technology that can connect a vehicle (in this instance a Mirai) with a communications network via satellites.
Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, has assembled a team of artificial intelligence all-stars that promises to “push the boundaries of human knowledge in computer science, material science and robotics.” Zack Hicks, CEO of Toyota Connected and CIO of Toyota Motor North America, talks about “freeing our customers from the tyranny of technology.” Meanwhile, Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota Motor Sales, hopes for a future “where the car is incapable of causing a crash, making it possible to save more and more lives.”
Clearly, something fundamentally different and potentially profound is stirring at Toyota—beyond the normal day-to-day scope of designing, manufacturing, selling and servicing automobiles. No one knows exactly what this new reality will look like when all of the high-tech pieces fall into place. But it’s safe to say that we, as a company and an industry, have a very exciting future ahead of us.
Consider these recent announcements:
- An artificial intelligence laboratory—Toyota is investing $1 billion over the next five years in the newly formed Toyota Research Institute (TRI). The primary base of operations is in Silicon Valley near Stanford. A second facility will be established near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, while a third will be in Ann Arbor near the University of Michigan campus. TRI's mission is to bridge the gap between fundamental research and product development in the fields of artificial intelligence, materials science and robotics. This work could lead to not only helping to make vehicles safe but also more accessible, regardless of a person’s physical challenges. (See related stories here and here.)
- A hub for the development of connectivity technologies—Led by Hicks, Toyota Connected will take up residence near TMNA’s new headquarters campus in Plano, Texas. Its mandate? To identify and deploy data-driven applications that will transform the vehicle ownership experience. One possibility: If the data reveals that you’re making heavy use of your vehicle’s anti-lock brakes and the exterior temperature is below freezing, it’s likely the road is icy. That information could be relayed to vehicles heading in the same direction, warning them to slow down. (See our Q&A with Zack Hicks.)
- A connected-vehicle car insurance company—In April, Toyota Financial Services and Toyota Connected announced the formation of a new entity that will deliver “pay-as-you-drive” services that use data to calculate each customer’s personal driving score.
Grid Unlocked -- Here's an artist's rendering of a connected system of motorways. Toyota, in partnership with the University of Michigan, is putting this concept to a real-world test in Ann Arbor.
- A satellite-connected vehicle—At the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Toyota displayed a research vehicle based on the fuel-cell-powered Mirai that is equipped with satellite communications technology from Kymeta, a U.S.-based company that is a world leader in flat-panel antenna technology. Satellite communications (vs. cellular networks) offer several key benefits, such as: the distribution of huge amounts of data to a vehicle; broad coverage areas; the global deployment of connected vehicles that share common standards across national borders; and more stable and secure communications, particularly in emergencies such as natural disasters.
- A city-wide connected-vehicles test—In partnership with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and other automakers, Toyota is helping to transform the streets of Ann Arbor, Mich., into the world’s largest operational, real-world deployment of connected vehicles and infrastructure. The vehicles are designed to not only talk with each other but with the city’s infrastructure, such as traffic signals. The goal is to deploy 5,000 vehicles with vehicle awareness devices throughout the Ann Arbor area. The objective is to gauge the viability of connected driving systems that could, among other benefits, greatly reduce vehicle fatalities.
The possibilities of all of these new technologies, some of which have yet to be invented, are nearly endless. But, in the end, there’s only one objective.
“Delivering services that make lives easier,” says Hicks. “First we have to ask, ‘What is the experience we want to deliver?’ Once we have the answer to that question, then we can focus on the technology that supports it.”
Toyota Motor Corporation President Akio Toyoda perhaps summed it up best.
“As technology continues to progress, so does our ability to improve products,” he says. “At Toyota, we do not pursue innovation simply because we can. We pursue it because we should. It is our responsibility to make life better for our customers, and society as a whole.”
By Dan Miller