The quest to build crash-proof cars at Toyota Motor Corp. isn’t just a job for Gill Pratt. It’s somewhat personal. Pratt still vividly remembers encountering the aftermath of a collision between a boy on a bicycle and a car that traversed a four-lane road as he walked home from elementary school in Springfield, New Jersey.
“The part that I remember the most were his shoes,” Pratt, 54, said in an interview in November, after Toyota announced he’d lead its $1 billion research institute. “His shoes on the road, those were what was left of him.”
Handpicked by President Akio Toyoda to serve as CEO of the Toyota Research Institute Inc., Pratt is building a dream team in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence to design vehicles capable of overcoming driver errors and curtailing the 1.25 million traffic deaths that occur every year, according to the World Health Organization.
Pratt joined Toyota from the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as Darpa, where he was the top roboticist. He’s hired two former colleagues and managers from the agency, a former Google Inc. robotics director and professors from two universities on his resume – Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Olin College of Engineering — to the Toyota institute’s technical team.
The world’s biggest automaker has reason to bet big on Pratt and his institute. It’s locked in a battle both with auto- industry peers and newer rivals such as Google and Uber Technologies Inc. to develop autonomous driving technology. Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc. also are among companies competing for the brightest minds in the field of artificial intelligence.
Views among Toyota’s top brass have evolved when it comes to automated driving. In the past, executives insisted on wanting to keep a driver fully engaged. The automaker is now in the same camp as companies like Google in developing its technology all the way to building cars capable of going fully driverless.
In November, Pratt downplayed the challenges Toyota may face with recruiting. While he’s seeking to bring Toyota along on software, no company assembles as much finished hardware in the automotive industry.
“If you’re producing real products – physical things that can intervene in the world and make life better and improve the quality of life for people – it means a whole lot,” he said. “Making an app for a phone, which may help just a tiny bit, might involve the same effort, but the reward is not as much. We’ll actually be in very good shape when we try to attract and retain really good talent in Silicon Valley.”
Toyota’s technical team includes former Darpa managers Eric Krotkov and Larry Jackel, former Google engineer James Kuffner, MIT’s John Leonard and Russ Tedrake, and Olin College’s Brian Storey.
The institute’s work could lead to benefits for Toyota’s business of selling cars. Autonomous driving holds the potential to expand the market of potential motorists, both among younger consumers and the growing global ranks of seniors in aging societies, who face the prospect of having to give up their licenses.
Pratt’s friend Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self- driving car program, has said he’d like Google’s vehicle to be ready in time for when his son is old enough to get his driver’s license about four years from now. Pratt has a fatherly goal of his own: one of his four sons is 18 and has avoided getting his license due to fear of getting in a collision.
Toyota envisions autonomous vehicles working much like the driver’s-education cars Pratt grew up with, which had an extra steering wheel and brake pedal for the teacher in the passenger’s seat side. Equipping cars with artificial intelligence and deep learning capabilities would allow the vehicle to step in to avoid accidents like an instructor would.
“That will make cars easier to learn how to drive, and my son would do fine,” he said. “It would drastically cut down on accidents, too.”
Pratt also has a personal stake in enabling seniors to safely hang onto their licenses. He and his wife both have been compelled to take away their parents’ keys when it was no longer safe for them to drive.
“This is at the core of why I took the job with Toyota,” Pratt said in November. “I would like to make the world be a place where these kinds of events are far less likely to occur for families everywhere around the world.”