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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Steps toward autonomy

There’s some relatively new lingo being applied to the auto industry lately.  A few of those terms that are bandied about — autonomous, self-driving, driver assist, adaptive and connected — prognosticate the future of automotive features and design.

Recently, Toyota has made a big bet on another new-age concept:  artificial intelligence, commonly known as “AI.”

As technologies converge, it was likely that auto manufacturers would jump on the “AI bandwagon” since the concept not only weighs heavily into robot production, but may be paramount in developing self-driving (autonomous) vehicles that can make human-like (or better) decisions in emergency driving situations.

By coincidence, I just watched a movie showcasing an AI theme.  The movie, Ex Machina, featured a female AI robot intelligent enough to [SPOILER] deceive its maker, destroy him, and infiltrate humankind undetected.

That’s a typical Hollywood take on artificial intelligence:  A doomsday scenario where the “offspring” annihilate their creator and threaten life as we know it.  Hopefully, forays into AI will not have the same effect on Toyota.

As mentioned, AI efforts are initially leaning toward creating smart robots for what can arguably be called servants.  Sony has been leading the charge in such technology with its robotic dogs and humanoid bipeds that perform amazing tasks and can even be seen dancing on a YouTube video.

So, while tech giants like Apple and Google have been moving in on the auto industry, Toyota Motor Corporation is making a one billion dollar investment in the tech world.

Toyota has recruited Gill Pratt, one of the county’s foremost experts on robotics and artificial intelligence.  Pratt, once a program manager at the U.S. Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, will head a research and development arm for Toyota.  The company envisions that research will guide development of autonomous vehicles and other products such as household robots.

With a long-term forecast that automobile ownership and purchasing will eventually decline in favor of summoning “vehicles on demand,” Toyota’s investment may be well-conceived.  In the future, you may be purchasing a housekeeper instead of a Prius from your local dealer.  Toyota’s goal is to become as much of a leader in programming software as it is in automotive hardware.

Pratt is excited about the “marriage” for many reasons.  As a child, he watched a neighborhood boy run down by a car and killed in the street, and more recently, felt the indignity experienced by his father when the family curtailed his driving privileges.  Pratt’s vision for autonomous driving, coupled with the clout of Toyota, could possibly alleviate such misfortunes.

Pratt, the new CEO for Toyota Research Institute Inc., believes, “It’s a question of whether we can leverage the incredible skills that we have in design, manufacturing and support into other fields and weave software into what the company’s good at.  And I think the answer may be yes.”

It’s now evident that the trend toward blending of automotive and computing technology is going to continue.  Let’s hope that AI can be successfully introduced into our homes and automobiles without the dreaded detriment to society’s inhabitants so often depicted in science fiction books and movies.

At least Pratt’s intentions are honorable, as he claims, “TRI will aim to develop technology…to expand Toyota’s boundaries to positively impact society.”

Like other automakers, Toyota plans to have cars on the road by 2020 that would be able to merge, change lanes, pass and navigate to destinations by themselves.

Readers may contact Bill Love via email at