Toyota to launch Ann Arbor autonomous car research base

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Toyota Motor Co. on Thursday said it will collaborate with the University of Michigan to create a major autonomous vehicle research base in Ann Arbor as part of its $1 billion Toyota Research Institute in California.

The Ann Arbor location — an existing building on Green Road, near the University of Michigan’s north campus — will open in June and eventually employ 50 engineers, faculty members and other employees. Toyota will use the hub for research in artificial intelligence and robotics to support fully autonomous driving and to accelerate scientific discovery in materials science.

Toyota declined to comment on how much of the $1 billion investment is going into the Ann Arbor location.

The automaker also has Research Institute facilities in Palo Alto and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Each of the three sites will be focused on different research.

“Beyond the extraordinary work that UM is doing broadly in advancing automotive safety research — and in autonomous driving, in particular — Toyota has deep roots in the Ann Arbor community,” Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, said at a California tech conference Thursday. “TRI was drawn to Ann Arbor because of the strength of the university; the utility of Mcity and the Mobility Transformation Center which we currently sponsor; the promise of the future American Center for Mobility at Willow Run; and the proximity to, and synergies with, our two well-established Toyota Technical Centers nearby.”

As part of the announcement, the automaker announced Thursday that it’s hiring U-M engineering associate professors Ryan Eustice and Edwin Olson as area leads.

In addition to their roles at U-M, Eustice will focus on mapping technology and Olson will focus on how robots perceive their environments.

Olson, who has previously worked with Ford, said he chose to join the TRI because of the automaker’s resources.

“It’s really a grand experiment in a lot of ways,” he said in an interview. “The OEMs are super conservative and they’re up against a technological revolution. The quest has always been how can they adapt and become a high-tech company? They gave us a blank slate to play with in terms of culture to establish this sort of startup environment.”

He said the new facility will include features garages, prototyping labs and other features.

“This is not going to be a cube farm,” he said. “It’s going to be one of those fun places that’s good for thinking out of the box.”

The Japanese automaker already has been testing autonomous vehicle technology at its Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor for more than a decade. A group of about 15 workers from the TTC will transfer to the new Ann Arbor facility when it opens, Toyota said.

The already-established Technical Center, with sites in York Township and Ann Arbor, includes a crash-test facility, a prototype facility for vehicle development, a supply center and a half-mile road for low-speed vehicle testing. It recently underwent a $126 million upgrade.

The automaker also has been a partner in U-M’s Mobility Transformation Center and was a founding partner of MCity, an autonomous testing facility that opened in Ann Arbor last year.

Toyota said it plans to offer its most advanced automated driving technologies by around 2020, but a spokesman on Thursday said, “Toyota believes that its vehicles will never become autonomous to the point where the driver no longer has hands on the steering wheel.”

Toyota has an extensive history in robotics. Since 2000, it has used its Partner Robot initiative to develop robots that pick up and carry objects, talk and play musical instruments. It has also developed robot arms that aid in car production. Last month, it announced “Project BLAID,” a wearable device that can help blind people safely move around.

A number of automakers are creating dedicated programs for autonomous research. GM earlier this year launched a new team for driverless car research, and Ford last month launched a Smart Mobility LLC spinoff to study the technology.

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