Car companies are scrambling for AI talent as Google and Apple’s driverless cars loom

There’s a Toyota right behind that Google self-driving car.
There’s a Toyota right behind that Google self-driving car.
Image: Google+/Google Self-Driving Car Project
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Before Silicon Valley can disrupt the car industry, the car industry wants to join forces with Silicon Valley. Today (Sept. 4), Toyota announced it’s investing $50 million into a partnership with MIT and Stanford University to accelerate research into artificial intelligence and robotics.

Toyota said in a statement that Fei-Fei Li, the head of Stanford’s Computer Vision Lab, and Daniela Rus, the director of MIT’s artificial intelligence lab, will serve as joint leads for their respective schools, and Gill Pratt, the former manager of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, will join Toyota as the director of the initiative.

The Japanese car manufacturer—which produces America’s best-selling car—put its decision to invest down partly to a desire to figure out ways to increase mobility for the elderly. This is a real problem for Japan, where an aging population is being asked to stay in the workforce longer, and many companies are looking to robotics to help solve the labor shortage.

Traditional car manufacturers may soon face increased competition from new places. Google’s self-driving cars are on the streets of California (and Texas), racking up miles of experience on local roads and highways. The cars use a combination of computer vision and laser radar—technology quite similar to the systems used in the robots that navigated the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Apple is reportedly building its own self-driving car, and is scouting locales in the Bay Area to test it out. Tesla Motors is also pushing to have its own driverless car on the market as soon as possible.

But Toyota’s goals, at least for now, appear to be more modest. The company’s release said Pratt’s team will be working on “intelligent vehicles,” rather than self-driving ones. According to The New York Times, Toyota will focus on building artificial-intelligence systems that will make people better drivers, rather than passengers. ”A worry we have is that the autonomy not take away the fun in driving,” Pratt told the Times. “If the autonomy can avoid a wreck, it can also make it more fun to drive.”

Current assistance technology in cars—like systems that warn drivers when they stray from their lanes—require a level of computer detection, and have been in cars for a few years. Pratt will work on building out better, safer systems to help with driver errors. Pratt compared the systems he’ll be working on to a “driver’s education teacher,” adding that they’ll usually be unnoticeable, “unless you are about to do something dumb.”

Toyota has, however, been working on self-driving cars in some capacity for years that are relatively similar to Google’s work. And it’s not alone—many car manufacturers are looking into a driverless future. Volvo, ever the champion of passenger safety, wants to test self-driving cars with humans in them in 2017. Mercedes has a self-driving airport-lounge-on-wheels concept that it showed off at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. Honda also has a concept, as does Chevrolet. And don’t forget Uber. The list goes on.

Whether Toyota intends to use its roboticists and artificial-intelligence researchers to build slightly safer Camrys or Priuses that we don’t have to drive, it’s clear that there’s a rush to find talent that can make cars safer. Fei-Fei Li is working on making computers see and understand the world like humans do, and Rus’s work with Toyota will focus on “developing advanced decision-making algorithms and systems that allow vehicles to perceive and navigate their surroundings safely,” according to MIT. The race for safety is on.