EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. — Toyota is investing $50 million with Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in hopes of gaining an edge in the race to phase out human drivers.
The financial commitment announced Friday by the Japanese automaker will be made over the next five years at joint research centers in Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Mass.
Toyota has hired robotics expert Gill Pratt to oversee research aimed at developing artificial intelligence and other innovations that will enable future car models to navigate the roads without people doing all the steering and stopping.
“We believe this research will transform the future of mobility, improving safety and reducing traffic congestion,” said Kiyotaka Ise, a Toyota executive who oversees its research and development group.
Unlike some of its rivals, Toyota believes the day when cars can drive entirely by themselves is unlikely to arrive within the next decade. Instead, the company is focusing its efforts on developing technology that can turn a car into the equivalent of an intelligent assistant that recognizes when it should take over the steering when a driver is distracted, or automatically play a favorite song when it detects a driver is in a bad mood.
“What if cars could become our trusted partners?” mused Daniela Rus, an MIT professor who will lead the university’s research partnership with the automaker.
Pratt, a former program manager at the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, suspects many people will still want to drive some of the time even when cars are fully equipped to handle the task. He hopes Toyota’s research will give the option of relying on computers to do the job when they are stuck in traffic or traveling down a boring stretch of highway.
The MIT research center will focus on inventing ways for cars to recognize their surroundings and make decisions that avert potential accidents.
Besides working on recognition technology, the Stanford center will try to create artificial intelligence programs that study human behavior to learn more about the decision making and reasoning that goes into driving so cars can quickly adjust to potentially dangerous situations.
Stanford’s research will be led by Fei-Fei Li, the director of the university’s artificial intelligence lab.
Not far away from Stanford, both General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. have established offices in Palo Alto, California, in their own quests to make smarter cars.
Meanwhile, just to the south, Google’s self-driving cars are regularly cruising the roads of the company’s hometown of Mountain View, California, during ongoing testing of the vehicles.
California law still requires humans to be in the self-driving cars to take control in dangerous situations or if something goes wrong. Most of the time, though, Google’s self-driving cars are being controlled by a computer. They logged a combined 147,000 miles in autonomous mode from June 3 through Aug. 31, according to Google. The self-driving cars were involved in four collisions that resulted in no major injuries. The robot cars were rear-ended by vehicles driven by people in those accidents.