Toyota starts a new $2.8 billion company to develop self-driving software


Based in Tokyo

Photo: Toyota Research Institute

Toyota is expanding its pursuit of self-driving cars by starting a new company called Toyota Research Institute-Advanced Development, or TRI-AD. The Japanese automaker is starting the company in conjunction with automotive supplier Aisin Seiki and Denso, and together, they plan to invest $2.8 billion into TRI-AD in the coming years and hire around 1,000 employees in order to develop software systems that can power fully self-driving vehicles.

Toyota is no stranger to autonomous technology. TRI-AD will be an offshoot of the Toyota Research Institute, which was founded by the company in North America in 2015 with its own $1 billion pledge. Toyota has used TRI to explore artificial intelligence with a focus on autonomous vehicles and robotics and hired the former head of the DARPA Robotics Challenge to lead the effort. Since then, TRI has worked on two paths of autonomous technology: one for fully self-driving vehicles, and one for driver assistance systems. It has demonstrated these technologies on a Lexus LS 600hL test vehicle and showed off a more streamlined set of hardware with a new version of the car at CES earlier this year. (Toyota has also begun to experiment with autonomous pods that could serve as rolling stores.)

TRI-AD will be based in Tokyo, and its aim is to create a “fully-integrated, production-quality software for automated driving,” according to Toyota. It will then aim to “link” that software with what TRI has been developing, with the apparent goal of creating a completely self-driving vehicle that has been wholly created in-house.

It’s a relatively unique approach in the auto industry. Many of the major carmakers competing to create the first fully autonomous vehicles have, at some point, had to go outside their own companies and acquire startups to help advance their technology. GM is nearing the release of its own fully self-driving Chevy Bolt, which it made after acquiring autonomous tech startup Cruise Automation in 2016. Ford has sped up its own efforts to create an autonomous car after dumping $1 billion into a small AI startup called Argo.

Meanwhile, there are a number of Silicon Valley companies trying to create the same (or similar) kind of “full-stack” solution for self-driving cars that they can then turn around and sell to automakers who want some help. Waymo, which started as the self-driving car project inside Google, aims to be one of these companies and has already partnered with Fiat-Chrysler in developing its vehicles. Aurora Innovations is another. Started by the man who shepherded the original Google self-driving car project, Aurora recently reached deals to provide its own self-driving technology to Volkswagen and Hyundai.

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