They call it Toyota's moonshot: In just one year, Japan's biggest carmaker wants to start selling a self-driving vehicle that it says will be the "most powerful supercomputer on wheels."
But the company has a lot of work to do first. It must develop hardware and software for the vehicle, dramatically slash the cost of the technology and ramp up the hiring of the software engineers who will make it all happen.
That's the challenge facing James Kuffner, CEO of Toyota Research Institute Advanced Development Inc., or TRI-AD. His Tokyo company was set up in March to spearhead Toyota's attempt to bridge the gap between research and the showroom floor.
The first milestone comes in 2020, when Toyota plans to introduce vehicles capable of driving themselves on highways. Kuffner said they would be rolling supercomputers.
"The prototypes and the preproduction vehicles that the team is building here at TRI-AD are going to be … the most intelligent supercomputer on wheels," Kuffner said late last month at TRI-AD's temporary office near Tokyo Station. "We've called it the moonshot of my generation to build this technology and bring it to market."
Toyota teamed with Toyota Group suppliers Aisin Seiki and Denso to invest $2.8 billion in the new company to create the software that runs self-driving vehicles.
Kuffner, an American, took the helm after a stint as chief technology officer at Toyota Research Institute, its future-looking research counterpart in Silicon Valley.
TRI-AD is tasked with making the 2020 technology, called Highway Teammate, a reality.
"If you think about building a research prototype, making a demonstration is pretty easy, but making a product is really hard," Kuffner said. "Whenever we talk about our company, we often talk about being a bridge of the prototype to the product."
Doing so means building a software company from scratch inside one of the most bureaucratic and traditional automakers in Japan. And the company is only partway there.
TRI-AD has about 500 employees crammed into temporary space on two floors of a Tokyo high-rise. But this summer, it will move into new digs next door with room for 1,000 engineers on five floors. It will take several years to fill those ranks, Kuffner said, noting increasingly fierce competition worldwide to hire the best software and artificial intelligence engineers.
Toyota has more than one advanced prototype of the 2020 vehicle. A modified Lexus LS sedan is the mobile laboratory. Kuffner said the 2020 vehicle will also be a Lexus.
That is partly a function of cost. The car will need hardware and software not yet in production, Kuffner said. The array of advanced cameras, lidars and radars won't be cheap.
"This is our first automated vehicle," said Ken Koibuchi, TRI-AD's chief technical officer. "It has very high-performance computing and very rich sensors. So, it means very expensive. To deploy in middle-class vehicles, we have to reduce costs dramatically."
Koibuchi declined to give a figure but said cost must drop by more than half of today's levels.
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