Light Bender -- Mindy Zhang, group manager of Material Research, demonstrates the concept behind TRI-NA's cloaking device than can bend light around a vehicle's A-pillar, minimizing blind spots. This was just one of 36 projects featured at the TMNA R&D Research Expo.
Were you among the more than 100 million Americans who watched Super Bowl LII in February? Then perhaps you caught a glimpse of the flying i-Road, one of the technologies featured in Toyota’s commercial on the future of mobility that aired during the second half.
Your fellow team members at Toyota Research Institute of North American (TRI-NA), though, already knew all about it. After all, the electric vehicle/drone mashup was the star of the Toyota Motor North America R&D Research Expo held at the York and Ann Arbor, Michigan, facilities in January.
“It’s meant to be a personal flying vehicle, but the team behind it calls it ‘Jumper,’” says Paul Fanson, TRI-NA senior research manager and one of the people who organized the expo. “The one in the Super Bowl ad was kind of a Hollywood souped up version. But there are two prototypes, one of which really does lift off and fly. But it’s not quite ready for prime time yet.”
And that’s OK.
TRI-NA’s reason for being is to dream of things that don’t exist and then explore whether it’s possible that they could. And the expo, now in its 10th year, is the way these researchers can pull back the curtain a bit on their many works in progress.
Some 36 teams had the opportunity to present “posters,” a one-page summary of what they’ve been up to. More than 400 people were given the opportunity to take it all in, including Takeshi Uchiyamada. He’s chairman of the Toyota Motor Corporation Board of Directors, but is perhaps better known as the “father of the Prius” — the iconic hybrid vehicle that naysayers once dismissed as nothing more than a science fair project. So Uchiyamada, of all people, can certainly appreciate the importance of blue sky thinking.
Like, for example, a cloaking device that can bend light around a vehicle's A-piller, minimizing blind spots. Or the next generation of autonomous vehicles that incorporate sensors that are better than the current state of the art.
“Most of the focus on autonomous driving technology has been on the software, in particular the development of artificial intelligence for perception and decision making,” says Fanson. “But the hardware matters, too. After all, these systems are critically dependent on data collected by the sensors.”
For the first time, Fanson said plans are in motion to take their R&D show on the road — including to the TMNA headquarters campus in Plano on May 1st.
“While the folks in Plano can see TRI-NA autonomous driving vehicle on display in TEC already, the intention is to connect with team members who work on real vehicles with real customers,” he says. “The better we understand the practical issues in the field, the more likely our technology can advance through the pipeline. In the end, that’s what this is all about.”
By Dan Miller