I have just got back from a long trip to the United States and I also spent a few days in Palo Alto. In this town, in the heart of the Silicon Valley, Nissan and Toyota are facing each other in a fascinating new challenge. Both have recently opened R&D centers to work on artificial intelligence. The gol is to win the big race to a driverless car.
To do this they have decided to “recruit” military or government technicians. Nissan was the first and in 2013 they snatched Maarten Sierhuis from NASA where he was working on artificial intelligence linked to space expeditions. Fast Company magazine considers him to be one of the 100 most creative people in the world.
Toyota didn’t just stand by and do nothing but put everything in the hands of Gill Pratt, formerly in Darpa, the Defense Advance Research Project Agency. The Pentagon, to put it simple. Akio Toyoda assigned him 1 billion dollars for the first five years plus 50 million in funding destined to the research centers of Stanford university in Palo Alto and Mit, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The approach of the two is completely different: Sierhuis is an extrovert guy, contagiously enthusiastic and fully embraces the project of the big boss Carlos Ghosn that is to launch in the next 4 years more than 10 autonomous vehicles (Infiniti, Nissan and Renault) “which are able to self-drive in the busiest city crossings”. With an exception: “you come from Rome and I’m sorry to say but it will take longer over there!”
Pratt seems more pragmatic and points out that “to reach total reliability the technology has to be tested for trillions of kilometers whereas today we are looking at just thousands”. In other words: let’s take it easy before putting everything in the hands of the car. Then again, “thanks to the information that we can gather from the millions of Toyota vehicles around the world, it will be easier to reach the goal”.
Who will win? We’ll see. In the mean time they will share (together with others) the 4 billion dollars that President Obama has put on the plate to accelerate the development and production of self-driving car. Relying on people just like Sierhuis and Pratt.