Toyota revs up its digital mapping subsidiary Woven Planet

Toyota plans to hire more people and invest heavily in its subsidiary Woven Planet to work on mobility technology so the Japanese automaker stays competitive amid the global shift to using artificial intelligence and robotics in everyday driving

TOKYO — Toyota plans to hire more people and invest heavily in its subsidiary Woven Planet to work on mobility technology so the Japanese automaker stays competitive amid the global shift to using artificial intelligence and robotics in everyday driving.

“Toyota’s traditional strength in hardware is something we never want to lose. To make safe mobility we need both, great hardware and great software,” Woven Planet Holdings Chief Executive James Kuffner said. “The world is changing. The automotive industry is going through this once-in-a-hundred-year revolution. And so how do we remain relevant?”

Woven Planet, fully owned by Toyota Motor Corp., announced Thursday it had acquired CARMERA Inc., based in Seattle and New York.

CARMERA specializes in sophisticated road mapping updates that are cheaper and faster by using crowdsourced information, obtained in real time from the millions of net-connected Toyota cars on roads.

Kuffner stressed that winning social acceptance for such technology, which in the future will become commercial products, was as much a challenge as perfecting the software.

“When a person crashes, we have empathy for that person. We all make mistakes, and we think: That could have been me. If a computer crashes, people have no empathy,” Kuffner said in an interview with The Associated Press from Portland, where he was visiting family.

“Making a computer system that is just as good as a human may not be good enough.”

Kuffner, who sits on Toyota’s board and is based in Tokyo, worked as part of the initial engineering team that built Google’s self-driving cars.

The latest Woven Planet deal follows the one in April to acquire Level 5, the self-driving division of Lyft, for $550 million. That deal, once approved, will raise the number of employees at Woven Planet from 860 to more than 1,000 people.

But Kuffner said he wanted to possibly quadruple that number, while acknowledging he was careful to avoid getting “too bloated or too bureaucratic.” The monetary value of Thursday’s acquisition was not disclosed.

San Francisco-based Lyft develops, markets, and operates a mobile app, offering vehicles for hire, motorized scooters and food delivery.

The addition of CARMERA is strategic for Woven Planet, whose Woven Alpha team is developing the automated mapping platform. Woven Planet, formerly called the Toyota Research Institute, has been collaborating with CARMERA since 2018.

All major automakers are working on similar technology, and no one is ahead of the pack, said Koji Endo, auto analyst with SBI Securities Co. in Tokyo

“We’re talking about two or three decades into the future, and so no one really knows for sure, to be honest,” Endo said, noting the automakers are partnering or investing in several players to hedge their bets. “But one thing is clear: No one wants to fall behind.”

The various technology that allows cars to communicate with each other, drive themselves and slash emissions will mean improved safety, less traffic congestions and quicker parking, Endo said.

Kuffner said he hoped to bring his Silicon Valley-type expertise to Toyota, traditionally known for craftsmanship in hardware. Companies downsizing because of economic damage from the pandemic has proved an investment opportunity, he added. Toyota has held up relatively well in the pandemic and has cash.

“Some things we’re going to do are going to fail. But, as I always tell my team, it isn’t a failure if you learn. We are always going to be learning, in the spirit of ‘kaizen’ and improvement,” Kuffner said, using a long-time Toyota manufacturing term.

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