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Toyota Foresees A Mass-Produced Future For Robotics

The world's largest auto manufacturer is looking past the world of cars and into the future of mass-produced, low-cost robotics.

According to Gill Pratt, the chief executive officer of Toyota Research Institute, the automaker's internationally renowned productions system can be turned toward overcoming the same sort of scale problems that plagued the early auto industry before the assembly line came into being.

“My thought is, if the Toyota production system can be applied to cars, maybe it can also be applied to robots, because they’re quite similar,” Pratt told reporters Friday in Tokyo. “The car of the future and the robot of the future in the home are both essentially doing the same thing.”

Toyota's investment in driving business beyond cars stretches back beyond President Akio Toyoda's decision last year to hire Pratt and fund a research institute with $1 billion over five years. Toyota has also worked on wheelchairs that can ascend stairs, wearables for the blind and helper bots to retrieve objects for bed-confined patients, among other innovations.
Toyota is not alone in this race. Alphabet (Google's parent company) is currently trying to develop self-driving cars and has been historically interested in robotics. However, that interest has been waning in recent months, as Boston Dynamics in now up for sale. Initial research indicated it would not be able to get a marketable product launched within the next five years. Toyota is among the interested potential acquiring firms, according to unnamed sources reportedly familiar with the matter.

“It is extraordinary that a very wide segment of society can afford cars,” Pratt said. “Cars are everywhere. I see no reason that robots couldn’t be everywhere as well.”

Pratt also noted he is confident that robotics will have a big place in the future lives of consumers, particularly in Japan (and especially among the aging).

“The market’s going to be there,” he said. “And now the only question is, can we apply the Toyota production system to that market? And I think that we can.”

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