Toyota's new Silicon Valley research labs are a threat to Tesla, Google

Be afraid, Elon, a $252 billion gorilla is in your back yard.

Toyota self-driving car research labs Silicon Valley Tesla Google

Google's self-driving car

Credit: REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

Toyota Motor Corp., the world's biggest car company, has announced it plans to set up a research and development office for artificial intelligence in Silicon Valley starting in January. 

There will be two offices for the Toyota Research Institute, as the firm is called. One will be located in Palo Alto near Stanford University. Another office will be in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near MIT. The parent company said it plans to spend more than $1 billion (¥120 billion) over the next five years for research into things like self-driving technology, robotics, and Artificial Intelligence. 

This comes on top of Toyota's announcement this past September to spend $50 million in an AI driving project with MIT and Stanford. Gill Pratt, a Toyota executive technical adviser and former MIT professor, will serve as CEO of the TRI.

TRI's initially work will be around AI, Big Data, and robotics to be used for self-driving technology and other mobility-related products. Pratt said the new company will hire about 200 people over the next several years.

Pratt told AutoNews that the research institute will seek to develop systems that prevent traffic accidents, make driving accessible to more people, and eventually apply what Toyota creates to indoor scenarios. Pratt was recently involved in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a government-funded contest to build robots that can do dangerous tasks. By all accounts, it didn't go very well, but that wasn't his fault.

Toyota has some catching up to do, as Google and Tesla have been at this for a while. Then again, not everyone can drop $1 billion on a research project, either. Financially, Toyota dwarfs Google, and Tesla isn't even a blip on its radar.

While Tesla cars are stunning, they are also for the wealthy. Toyota brought the electric car (the Prius) to the masses. And now it's parking a research firm a few miles from Stanford (and Intel, Nvidia, Apple and Freescale, just to name a few). They have the money to hire the best talent, as witnessed by the hiring of Pratt. This is a big deal.

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