Part of the challenge will be cultivating a Silicon Valley-like corporate culture in the middle of Tokyo. TRI-AD will target development of "production-quality software for automated driving," partly by harnessing big data collected from connected vehicles.
"We have to embrace software and ride the wave like a software company," said Nikos Michalakis, who worked on cloud computing at online video streaming service Netflix and is now TRI-AD's vice president in charge of the software platform. Indeed, TRI-AD will institute a so-called Software Dojo as a kind of in-house school to teach Toyota employees computer culture.
"Our goal is to teach a Silicon Valley mindset here," Michalakis said.
Toyota and its partners already team on software development, but Toyota hopes to jump-start progress by combining efforts under one roof with an expanded staff and bigger budget.
"We know we can't do it alone, so we've forged strong partnerships," Kuffner said.
Creating the self-standing autonomous driving unit may help Toyota lure top computing talent as automakers increasingly compete against high-tech companies for talent.
Although TRI-AD is in Tokyo, English will be its business language. About 80 percent of the staff is Japanese, but several of the top officers are non-Japanese.
"People actually respond well to our mission," Kuffner said.
"I can tell a top-talented software engineer, 'Would you like to write software to sell ads, or would you like to write software to save lives?' " he said. "And they'll join us."