| 1:27 PM EST

Toyota Appoints Self-Driving-Car Guru to Board

James Kuffner has the knowhow and background to help transform the carmaker’s future
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In case there was any doubt, Toyota is all in on the future of artificial intelligence and automation.

                                 James Kuffner (Images: Toyota)

The carmaker reinforced its commitment to AI and autonomous vehicle technologies with this week’s appointment of James Kuffner to its board of directors.

Kuffner, who currently heads the company’s Toyota Research Institute - Advanced Development (TRI-AD) unit, is a pioneering expert in both. At just 49 years old, the U.S.-born Kuffner also brings a fresh perspective to the very top of the Japanese carmaker’s leadership team.

Superhuman Visionary

TRI-AD’s mission is to advance mobility-related technologies that “help people have meaningful lives,” Kuffner told Bloomberg News (video above) late last year.

This includes using AI to amplify—but not replace—human capability and analyze data at unprecedented levels. In automotive terms, it means creating supercomputers on wheels with superhuman-type safety systems, asserts Kuffner, who has described the ambitious program as his generation’s moonshot.

One of the key enabling technologies is “cloud robotics,” a term Kuffner coined in 2010. The concept teams the power of cloud computing with connected robots to enable much faster shared learning among networked systems.

Experience Matters

A brilliant engineer with a lot of practical experience and success, Kuffner holds bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in computer science from Stanford University. He also studied astrophysics at Oxford University and was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Tokyo.

Kuffner joined Toyota in early 2016 as the chief technology officer of TRI, shortly after the advance research group’s formation. He took his current position at TRI-AD when it was spun off two years ago to help bring emerging technologies to real-world applications.

Prior to Toyota, Kuffner spent seven years at Google, the last three of them leading the company’s Robotics division. He also was part of the initial engineering team for Google's self-driving car program, which was later spun off as Waymo.

Kuffner previously founded the start-up Robot Autonomy and was a senior software consultant for Mobile Technologies. He has been an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute since 2002.

Among his other accomplishments, Kuffner has:

  • More than 50 patents
  • Authored 125 technical papers
  • Co-invented the rapidly exploring random tree (RTT) algorithm for robot motion planning
  • Received the Okawa Foundation Award for Young Researchers in 2007

More Responsibilities

  Didier Leroy  (Image: Toyota)

In addition to becoming a member of Toyota’s board, Kuffner has been appointed an operating officer of the company. He will continue to serve as TRI-AD’s CEO and will add the new title of chief digital officer.

Kuffner will succeed French-born Didier Leroy on the board. The only other current non-Japanese board member is Philip Craven, an outside independent director from the U.K. Leroy will remain an advisor.

The appointment will be voted on at Toyota’s annual shareholders' meeting, which is expected to occur sometime in June.