James Kuffner once reprogrammed a Prius to turn it into a driverless vehicle for Google. Now, he's a top executive at Toyota Motor Corp., charged with hacking the way it approaches the business of carmaking. Handpicked by President Akio Toyoda, the 50-year-old tech-industry veteran's mandate as chief digital officer is to keep the world's No. 1 automaker on top as cars become more like computers. The shift to electrified, autonomous vehicles is the most disruptive force sweeping the industry, with Apple Inc. and other Big Tech challengers muscling in. At stake for Toyota is a global manufacturing empire churning out more than 10 million vehicles a year.
Toyota Motor Corp.'s software and technology arm plans to embark on an ambitious hiring and acquisition spree as automakers globally jostle for pole position in the race to develop smart cars that will one day drive themselves. James Kuffner, CEO of Woven Planet Holdings Inc. -- the unit charged with leading the world's largest carmaker through an era in which the lines between technology and automobiles are increasingly blurred -- said he's looking to "double or quadruple the size of the company in the next couple of years." "And so that means organic and inorganic hiring, and when it makes sense, strategic acquisitions," Kuffner said on Wednesday. "We need a lot more people to deliver our mission faster and so I'm always looking for ways to attract, partner with and acquire top talent in that area." Acquisitions are already being made rapidly.
Carmera and Toyota collaborated on a mapping project in Detroit in 2019. Less than three months after acquiring Lyft's autonomous vehicle unit for $550 million, Toyota subsidiary Woven Planet Holdings made another acquisition to strengthen its position in the market. Woven Planet is acquiring HD mapping startup Carmera for an undisclosed amount. Carmera and Toyota are already quite familiar with each other. The companies collaborated on multiple projects from 2018-2020 in Detroit, Michigan, and Japan.
Toyota Motor Corp. is tapping a star Silicon Valley robotics expert to help put the final touches on an operating system it says will go up against that of Tesla Inc. Called Arene, the system allows new features to be installed in a car's existing hardware over the air and provides a platform for developers to create software. It's being developed by Toyota's new technology research arm Woven Planet Holdings Inc., led by Chief Executive Officer James Kuffner, a former Google engineer. Tesla is already a leader when it comes to over-the-air updates of a car's operating systems, which control everything from braking to Wi-Fi, locking and lights. It has been upgrading its electric vehicles' battery range and autonomous functions remotely via updates since 2012. On an earnings call last week, Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said Tesla is willing to license its software capabilities to third parties and is already in talks with original equipment manufacturers.
Carmaker Toyota has unveiled plans for a 2,000-person "city of the future," where it will test autonomous vehicles, smart technology and robot-assisted living. The ambitious project, dubbed Woven City, is set to break ground next year in the foothills of Japan's Mount Fuji, about 60 miles from Tokyo. Announcing the project at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Toyota's CEO Akio Toyoda described the new city as a "living laboratory" that will allow researchers, scientists and engineers to test emerging technology in a "real-life environment." A digital mock-up shows small autonomous vehicles operating alongside pedestrians. "With people buildings and vehicles all connected and communicating with each other through data and sensors, we will be able to test AI technology, in both the virtual and the physical world, maximizing its potential," he said on stage during Tuesday's unveiling.