(Bloomberg) — The researcher hired by Toyota Motor Corp. to spearhead its robotics and artificial intelligence efforts says the Tokyo-based automaker’s production principles can be applied to build affordable helper robots for rapidly aging societies.
Robot makers are struggling with the same scale challenges that the auto industry overcame with the “miracle” that occurred when Henry Ford developed the assembly line, according to Gill Pratt, the chief executive officer of Toyota Research Institute. Toyota’s vaunted production system later showed how to make cars both more cheaply and reliably, despite mistake-prone humans’ role in manufacturing, he said.
“My thought is, if the Toyota production system can be applied to cars, maybe it can also be applied to robots, because they’re quite similar,” Pratt told reporters Friday in Tokyo. He’s particularly sanguine about the prospects for devices that would help the elderly age where they live. “The car of the future and the robot of the future in the home are both essentially doing the same thing.”
Toyota had been delving into robotic applications beyond cars before President Akio Toyoda hired Pratt last year to run a research institute that it will fund with $1 billion over five years. The interests are in keeping with a push by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a “robot revolution” in Japan, with a a target to more than quadruple the nation’s robotics industry sales to 2.4 trillion yen ($23 billion) by 2020.
Toyota has been working on a motorized wheelchair that scales stairs, a wearable that guides the blind, a helper device that retrieves objects for the bedridden, and trainers for patients rehabilitating the ability to walk and stay balanced.
The world’s largest automaker is forging ahead in robotics as Google, the technology giant and a challenger in the race to develop driverless cars, shows signs of pulling back. Google’s Mountain View, California-based parent Alphabet Inc. has put the Waltham, Massachusetts-based Boston Dynamics up for sale after concluding it isn’t likely to produce a marketable product within the next few years, Bloomberg News reported in March.
Toyota Research Institute is among the potential acquirers, a person familiar with the matter said.
The Nikkei newspaper reported this month that Toyota’s institute was in final talks with Google to purchase both Boston Dynamics and Schaft, the robot company founded by two Tokyo University engineers.