With Google readying a fleet of driverless cars and Uber preparing for flying taxi trips in Los Angeles, the future sci-fi promised us is starting to become more and more of a reality. And Japanese car giant Toyota is hoping it can go on to become the brand most associated with robots.
Back in November 2015, Toyota announced it was investing $1bn in a new company based in the Silicon Valley dedicated to developing robotics and artificial intelligence. The investment, which will be spread over five years, resulted in the creation of the Toyota Research Institute (TRI).
Jim Adler, who is vice-president of the TRI, says the firm currently splits its time between developing driverless technology, a visual tracking system to aide driverless cars and also home robots. In terms of the latter, the TRI, which also has a $100m venture capital fund to invest in startups, recently invested $14m in Intuition Robotics, a firm aiming to build AI robots that can care for the elderly and sick.
And speaking during Lisbon’s Web Summit, Adler said he’s confident Toyota can become a brand synonymous with home robotics. He told Marketing Week: “More and more robots are going to become part of our world, that’s just a reality. The big challenge will be finding market adoption.
“I guess the nice thing about cars is there is already a market and they are part of everyday life. Obviously, with robots it is very different. But we’re seeing the digital assistant market explode right now and I think that will transition nicely into walking robots that can assist people in their daily lives. For example, having a conscious robot who can help an elderly person could save the world billions of dollars in health care.”
In the past, Toyota has shown off an R2-D2-like robot that picks up objects around the house, as well as more human-shaped robots that can play musical instruments. Adler insists this isn’t just an exercise to generate headlines, but an actual long-term business model.
“Toyota is a top 10 consumer brand globally,” he explained. “People already know we create safe and reliable cars and the good thing for us is there’s already room for Toyota at the home – inside your garage. The fact we’re already in the home means it will make it easier when we start to deliver robots into the home as well.”
There’s two realities here – you either fight and ignore innovation, or you get ahead of it and shape it. Toyota wants to do the latter and that takes a long-term approach.
Jim Adler, Toyota Research Institute
But with the rise of AI robotics and driverless cars, surely this will have a negative impact on human jobs? Adler says he understands this concern, but rebukes: “Whenever there is tech disruption, more jobs are created than before in places we don’t expect. The tech opens up new markets. People sometimes forget that.”
Playing the ‘long game’
He says Toyota is playing the “long game” and is focusing all its energy on helping the TRI make the brand the market leader in robotics, AI and driverless cars. He believes the firm will last a lot more than the initial five-year investment.
“The driverless cars in Blade Runner will happen eventually, I just hope society won’t be as bleak as in that film,” he joked. “Look, there’s two realities here – you either fight and ignore innovation, or you get ahead of it and shape it. Toyota wants to do the latter and that takes a long-term approach.
“I’m a great believer that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. We went through a technological revolution with the printing press 500 years ago and then from horses to automotives. I believe robotics is up next.”
Why driverless cars can’t be rushed
Driverless vehicles feel a lot closer than home robots. However, Adler doesn’t believe autonomous vehicles will work if the idea is for them to simply replace the car currently sitting in your driveway. Instead, Adler expects driverless cars to make car ownership a more niche thing.
He concluded: “The business model will require an Uber. [The cost of creating a driverless vehicle] means a ride-sharing culture will be the key for profitability in the long term.
“But this is going to take time to become a universal thing as every city has a very different environment for driving, with the bikes of Amsterdam very different from the taxis of New York.
“You might think AI is safer but humans are good drivers. Humans have one fatality for every 100 million miles and that’s a pretty good record. If driverless takes longer at Toyota than expected then that’s only a good thing as it needs to ensure safety is perfect before anything else.”