Toyota's contribution to the self-driving-future:


The famous Lexus RX450h driverless models that Google had driving through the streets of Silicon Valley had nothing to do with Toyota. In fact, Toyota was one of the last car manufacturers to join the driverless race. Or at least that is what they wanted everyone to believe. Toyota is the no. 1 auto maker in sales, with more than 10 million vehicles a year, but it was not until the end of 2013 that the Japanese superpower announced their self-driving interest. But once the floodgates opened in 2015 the water kept pouring.


Toyota announced testing of their driverless Lexus GS, founded the Toyota Research Institute in Silicon Valley, investing $1 billion into the project and assembling a team of 200 Artificial Intelligence engineers. A few months later news came to light that over the course of years Toyota had gathered over 2,000 self-driving car patents under their name. As turned out, they had long been busy with the development of the Toyota self-driving car in silence.


© Lexus Highway Teammate


Conceived as an Artificial Intelligence research facility bridging basic science and commercial engineering, the Toyota Research Institute is now one of the largest research laboratories in Silicon Valley. Gill Pratt, a roboticist and former official at the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, or Darpa, is running the show. By computerizing driving “we want to create cars that are both safer and incredibly fun to drive”, Pratt says.


Also smaller investments in AI show Toyota’s dedication to the find. For example their venture in the Tokyo basted AI company Preferred Networks Inc, their funding $50 million into the computer science departments of both Stanford and M.I.T and their 1,200 engineers strong specialized software center in San Ramon, California.




Toyota is, far and away, the global leader in the number of self-driving car patents, a report of Reuters pointed out. Not multimedia companies like Google or Apple could be holding sway in the self-driving future, but patent-holders like Toyota. Toyota alone has patented over 2,000 new driverless tech inventions in the last five years, twice as much as number two Bosch, which is then followed by Japan's Denso, Korea's Hyundai Motor and General Motors. One recent Toyota patent application, for example, is for software that avoids a car's self-driving system being switched off, and thus defaulting to "manual mode" in which the driver controls the car, unless the driver intends to turn off the system.




Since end of 2015 Toyota has been running tests with their automated driving vehicle called Highway Teammate. The car, a modified Lexus GS, was tested on Tokyo's Shuto Expressway, where it carried out a range of automated manoeuvres including merging into highways, changing lanes and keeping inter-vehicular distance. The word teammate states Toyota’s intentions: “Our vision is not necessarily a car that drives itself, but rather a car equipped with an intelligent, always-attentive co-pilot whose skills contribute to safer driving,” said Toyota executive Mark Templin.


Building on the knowledge their Research Institute provides and the technology brought forth by Stanford and M.I.T, Toyota is acquiring both software and hardware (the test car for example has six Lidar lasers and five milliwave radars - along with one camera to read lane markings and determine surrounding vehicles' positions) internally. This is a different approach than a lot of American companies like General Motors follow, who implement acquisition strategies toward buying hard- or software and is a direct competition with technology providers themselves, like Mobileye or Velodyne. Toyota’s first milestone will be the launch of Highway Teammate related products "by around 2020", when Tokyo is due to host the Olympic Games.

Fleet of the future?

In may 2016 Toyota announced a partnership with Uber. A big supported idea within the driverless industry is a future where car ownership is no longer sustainable and people will be driven around by fleets of autonomous taxi-cars. Along with buying a stake in Uber, the Japanese company will begin offering its Toyota self-driving car fleet as leases to Uber drivers, making it a strong competitor for the partnership between GM and Lyft.

Last updated: 12/07/2016
Sources: Wall Street Journal, BBC, Reuters, NY Times, Spectrum, Toyota Newsroom, Fortune