Just founded in mid-2018, the headquarters of Toyota Research Institute-Advanced Division (TRI-AD) wasn’t even complete when we visited in late October 2019.
Elevators, floors, even walls, were padded as work was still being done to complete the cafeteria and several common areas on floors 16-20 of their office in Nihonbashi Muromachi Mitsui Tower in Tokyo, Japan.
TRI-AD’s goal, according to CEO, Dr. James Kuffner is two-pronged, “create world-class technology and build the safest car in the world.”
Unlike other auto companies that acquire startups or buy programs they can install in their cars to make it run autonomously, Toyota has decided to do everything in-house — develop the software for their own hardware.
One of their current pet projects is a Lexus LS 500h imbued with RADICAL (Robust Autonomous Driving Incorporating Cameras And Learning). You’ll recognize it by the thick platform mounted on the roof that houses long-range LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) radars with a 360-degree, 200-meter sensing range to detect vehicles and obstruction on the road. Aside from that, it also uses 5G connectivity to access high-definition maps for navigation and is machine-learning capable, which allows it to estimate position of objects and vehicles around it while it’s mobile.
It is currently a protoype vehicle, but Kuffner says they’re on pace to make it a mass production unit that can receive over-the-air updates in the very near future. If you think that’s “wow,” there’s more, a lot more.
Another division is busy working on a variety of robots designed to do specific tasks. For starters, there’s T-HR3 Humanoid Robot that enables its user to do physically strenuous activities and even the basketball-shooting ‘Cue’ robot that shoots from the three-point area with 62.5% accuracy (better than Stephen Curry).
As cool as those are, their siblings will be the ones you’ll remember after they debut at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics: the Human Support Robot (HSR) and the Field Support Robot (FSR).
To assist audience members with disabilities, the HSR will be positioned in the stands. It has an array of sensors and cameras on its head, arm and trunk in order to determine distance, pressure, and a variety of factors involved in reaching out and picking up items from different surfaces.
The FSR is the more active of the two. It is designed to run with marshals who will then load items like the 8-pound hammer in track and field throwing events for it to bring back to the throwing circle. Its makers say it will help reduce the wait time in between throws during the Olympics.
Our last stop was, for techies like me, where all the magic happens, the UX (User Experience) Division. This place is where software designs are developed and implemented virtually to see if it can deliver mobility experiences that are what their designers call ‘trustworthy, safe and enjoyable to use.’
So detailed is their work that, as an example, they demoed how they fine-tune the process that happens during the switch from driver to autonomous mode until they get it just right. Each minute change is done to make the transition a seamless, safe and easy experience.
The latest tool the UX team uses is Arene. It’s a desktop application that let’s programmers create and edit new user interface designs for vehicles. It is paired with an Arene Bench (a desktop computer) that’s modular, which allows hardware to be changed depending on what needs testing. It can run separately but when used together, it sends the designs directly to the ECU from the desktop application for virtual testing. This flexibility makes the design process more streamlined for quicker feedback and higher iteration cycles.
Once the designed interface passes this stage, it is then sent to the Arene UX Motion Simulator for user experience testing purposes.
By working with Arene, a software that’s tailored to the automotibile’s specs, features can be rehearsed and improved faster to produce quantifiable and safer solutions.
As serious as all of the above sounds, don’t think for a second that this is an ‘all work and no play’ environment.
TRI-AD offices give off that same vibe as Silicon Valley companies. ‘Street lanes’ run down the middle of the office space where employees can use one of the many Toyota Winglets parked on the side to get around and collaborate with other teams.
There’s also a fully functional kitchen with a large counter offering snacks, fruits, and various beverages, plus toys strategically placed on the many nooks to spark the imagination.
It’s a designer’s paradise and a highly inspiring place to work in, and it isn’t even completely operational yet. TRI-AD fully opens December 2019.
From autonomous car prototypes, robots, a state-of-the-art platform in Arene, to cool tech toys and gadgets, TRI-AD is poised to make all of Akio Toyoda’s vehicles the safest and smartest of them all.
Text and photos by Eric Tipan