Toyota demonstrates autonomous driving technology.
Photograph by Yoshikazu Tsuno — AFP via Getty Images
By Kirsten Korosec
April 4, 2016

Toyota has created a new data analytics company in partnership with Microsoft with one aim: bring new Internet-connected services into the car without overwhelming the driver with technology.

The new entity, named Toyota Connect, will use Microsoft’s cloud computing platform Azure to crunch data and help develop new products for drivers, businesses with car fleets, and even dealers.

These new services produce a steering wheel that monitors a driver’s heartbeat and a seat that becomes a scale, vehicle-to-vehicle technology enabling cars to communicate with each other to observe hazards ahead, or a virtual assistant that uses predictive analytics to determine not only where the driver is headed, but the best route to avoid traffic or favorite food suggestions along the route, according to Toyota and Microsoft.

Additional new products could also focus on safety, connecting the car to smart devices in the home, or to city infrastructures designed to ease traffic congestion and locate free parking.

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Toyota Connect, which will be based in Plano, Texas, builds on Toyota’s existing partnership with Microsoft to research and develop connected car services. Toyota Connect will essentially become the data science hub for the entire company, serving its robotics and artificial intelligence research. Zack Hicks, the president and CEO of Toyota Connect, will also keep his title of chief information officer at Toyota Motor North America.

Microsoft and Toyota didn’t say when these products might appear in cars. But whatever they develop will initially rollout in North America and then expand into other markets, according to Microsoft.

The collaboration illustrates a recent trend among automakers to do more with the data they’re capturing from drivers. Automakers have thrown a lot of technology into cars in a bid to catch up to the functionality of smartphones, on which people have come to rely.

But adding more technology hasn’t always translated into car sales. It’s no longer enough to have a car with Wi-Fi or a Bluetooth connection that allows a driver to pair their smartphone to the car. The most valuable tech is easy to use, intuitive, and integrated with other apps or services.

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Toyota is hoping that a car embedded with technology that can bring together all the disparate facets of a person’s life—work, home, fun—will lead to brand loyalty and more sales.

The Japanese automaker has ramped up its investment in data, software development, and artificial intelligence in the past year. Toyota said in September it would invest $50 million in artificial intelligence in a partnership with Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create two joint research centers focused on using technology to make driving safer. Toyota also committed to devoting $1 billion over five years to the “Toyota Research Institute,” a Silicon Valley-based AI research center.

Toyota announced in October that it wants to put self-driving cars on the road by 2020. Since then, the car giant has bought a 3% stake for $8.2 million in Tokyo-based artificial intelligence firm Preferred Networks and Jaybridge Robotics, a Cambridge, Mass.-based artificial intelligence software firm.

Correction: 6:10 p.m. The initial version of this story incorrectly referred to this as a joint venture. It is a collaboration. The story has been updated.

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