Gill Pratt
Gill Pratt

Toyota has hired the top robotics expert from the US defence department’s research arm and promised $50m in extra funding for artificial intelligence research, as it steps up the race between the world’s biggest carmakers to pioneer new forms of computer-assisted driving.

However, the Japanese carmaker maintained on Friday that completely driverless cars were still years away, and that AI and robotics would have a more complex effect on the relationship between humans and their vehicles than Google’s experiments with “robot cars” suggest.

Gill Pratt, who stepped down recently from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), will move to Silicon Valley to head Toyota’s robotics efforts, the company said. Darpa played a key role in stimulating interest in driverless cars with a competition in 2005 — the leader of the winning entry, Sebastian Thrun, who was then a professor at Stanford University, went on to found Google’s driverless car programme.

In an interview, Mr Pratt said Toyota planned to give drivers the choice one day of handing over full control to the AI “brains” in their vehicles. However, taking human drivers out of the picture would be optional, and the pleasure of controlling a vehicle was an “innate” one that would keep people behind the wheel.

“It is important to design in humans in the future,” he said at an event in Silicon Valley on Friday.

Kiyotaka Ise, a senior managing officer at Toyota, said the company differed from Google over the desirability of taking people out of the equation completely. “To us, it is like a train without an operator,” he said. “We always want to keep drivers in the vehicle and in control.”

Mr Ise compared Toyota’s vision for robotic cars with its hybrid electric vehicle, the Prius. Adding more elements of automation to current vehicles, rather than waiting for a full robot car, would make it possible to bring the technology to drivers more quickly and bring costs down faster, he said.

Toyota said it would give the AI labs at Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology $25m each over the next five years. The money is to support areas of research into autonomous driving and the use of robots in the home, another market the company is trying to develop.

Artistic sketch of Google's prototype of a self-driving car
Artistic sketch of Google's prototype of a self-driving car

Fei-Fei Li, director of Stanford’s AI lab, said part of the work would focus on the interaction between people and robots, in particular analysing how behaviour is affected by the increasingly complex situations in which people encounter “intelligent” machines of all types.

Much of the work in bringing AI to Toyota’s cars is likely to involve “the difficult decisions about when and how to intervene”, Mr Pratt said, with a vehicle monitoring its driver and deciding when to take control.

But he argued that this would not limit the level of human involvement and could increase drivers’ enjoyment, for example by giving the less experienced the chance to drive on racetracks with an AI “instructor”.

While at Darpa Mr Pratt ran the agency’s Robotics Challenge, a competition to find a robot capable of handling tasks that might be required in an emergency. Toyota has been working on robots able to carry out household tasks, with an eye particularly on catering to the ageing population in Japan.

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