Toyota Invests In Autonomous Vehicle Center In Michigan

The Toyota Research Institute in Ann Arbor will specialize in self-driving vehicle tech. The facility, with researchers looking into topics from autonomous vehicle to AI, joins existing TRI hubs in California and Massachusetts.
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Toyota is setting down roots in the heart of America's car manufacturing base with the announcement that it is building a center for the development of autonomous vehicles in Michigan.

The company's third Toyota Research Institute (TRI) will be based in Ann Arbor, near the University of Michigan (U-M) campus. It joins Toyota's existing institutes in Palo Alto, Calif. (TRI-PAL), and Cambridge, Mass. (TRI-CAM).

The Michigan-based TRI-ANN is scheduled to open in June. It will employ about 50 people working on research in artificial intelligence, robotics, and materials science. In addition, a group of about 15 team members from Toyota Technical Centers will transfer to the new TRI-ANN facility when it opens.

The TRI-ANN facility will focus on fully autonomous driving. U-M Professors Ryan Eustice and Edwin Olson will join the team as the area leads for mapping, localization, and perception. Eustice serves as the director of the Perceptual Robotics Lab at U-M. Olson is the director of the APRIL robotics lab at the university.

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"TRI was drawn to Ann Arbor because of the strength of the university; the utility of Mcity and the Mobility Transformation Center, which we currently sponsor; the promise of the future American Center for Mobility at Willow Run; and the proximity to, and synergies with, our two well-established Toyota Technical Centers nearby," Dr. Gill Pratt, CEO of TRI, wrote in an April 7 statement.

Over on the West Coast, in cooperation with Stanford University, TRI-PAL will work on what may be termed guardian angel driving, where the driver is always engaged, but the vehicle assists as needed, while MIT and Toyota at TRI-CAM will dedicate a large portion of their work to simulation and deep learning.

Boasting initial funding of $1 billion, TRI has four initial mandates:

  • enhancing the safety of automobiles
  • working to increase access to cars to those who otherwise cannot drive
  • integrating artificial intelligence
  • machine learning in both mobility systems and improving indoor mobility capabilities

"Where we need autonomy to help most is when the driving is difficult. It's this hard part that TRI intends to address," Pratt continued. "Toyota's goal is safer mobility for all, at any time, in any place, and the tremendous improvements in quality of life that such universal mobility can bring."

Ford already has had self-driving vehicles on Michigan's wintry roads, releasing a YouTube video featuring footage of Ford's self-driving fleet of Fusion sedans cruising the state.

"In the real world you don't always have the perfect sunny weather, so we feel that it's important to test in weather like snow, and not only do the testing, but understand how the system performs," Randy Visintainer, director of autonomous vehicles and controls at Ford, explained in the video. "[We want the public] to know we are looking at these conditions, and we're looking at how to make our systems robust to these kinds of weather conditions."

On the other side of the planet, Swedish automaker Volvo is also starting an impressive experiment with self-driving vehicles. It announced plans to launch China's most advanced autonomous driving experiment.

Local drivers will test up to 100 autonomous cars on public roads in everyday driving conditions. Volvo hopes to begin the tests in the coming months.

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