Toyota announces new venture capital fund for autonomous vehicles
Have some good ideas for autonomous vehicle technology? The Toyota Research Institute would like to hear about it, and may be willing to fund it and become a customer.
Gil Pratt, the former DARPA roboticist who is now COE of the TRI, announced a new venture fund named the Toyota AI Ventures at the Automated Vehicles Symposium on Tuesday, July 11, held by AUVSI and TRB in San Francisco.
The idea is to invite innovative companies “to join us in trying to move this field forward,” Pratt said.
TRI was founded just last year with a $1 billion investment, and has quickly grown from zero employees to 200. Toyota AI Ventures is funded to the tune of $100 million from the $1 billion that TRI itself was founded with just last year.
The new fund will focus on four areas: artificial intelligence, cloud computing, robotics and autonomous vehicle mobility. It plans to issue what Pratt called “call and response” requests, and might pick the best two or three to help develop.
“Toyota provides funding, but also is a customer, but not the only customer — but a customer they can depend on,” Pratt said.
It has already funded three companies — Nauto, which monitors driving behaviors; SLAMcore, which is developing a low-cost mapping system; and Intuition Robotics, which makes social robotic systems.
“It’s the beginning of a much larger pool of investments that we plan to make,” he said.
Pratt was the keynote speaker on the first day of the conference, following conference opener Malcolm Dougherty, director of the California Department of Transportation.
He said California has approved a spending package of $50 billion over the next decade, which includes money for cities and counties to focus on autonomous technology. It includes money for maintaining roads and bridges, but also requires projects to take into account future connected vehicle or autonomous technologies, “so we are accommodating that future look.”
That could lead to mass distribution of collision avoidance systems, lane keeping, detect and avoid technology and ways to reduce distracted driving, he said.
“If we do all those things, thousands of lives can be saved, not only in California, but across the country,” he said.
The state passed regulations for testing driverless vehicles in 2014, and 36 companies, from established automakers to startups, are now testing on public roads in the state. Rules covering the actual operation of such vehicles are still in the works, and draft regulations were published in March.
One big change is that “the new regulations would allow for driverless testing, completely driverless testing … and operation of those vehicles would be allowed,” he said.
Current regulations require a steering wheel, gas pedal and other things not needed for self-driving cars.