Toyota Putting Software First in Global, Connected-Car Architecture

Toyota tags its North American team to lead its worldwide connectivity efforts, using a whole-cloth, in-house data approach to monetize convenience.

The infotainment system on the new Tundra pickup truck is the first Toyota product in the U.S. to fully showcase the multi-year efforts and investments from Toyota Connected. (Toyota)

Toyota Connected was launched in 2016 in North America, established as an “innovation engine” for the global OEM. The goals of the new digital division were to leverage opportunities with first-party data (that of Toyota and Lexus owners) to “transform the customer experience” using novel tools including machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). Hoping to make owners’ lives “better, safer, and surprisingly more convenient,” the group has since rebuilt its telematics system from the ground up, bringing all data management in-house.

Toyota’s in-house data approach has permitted consolidation of customer touch points into a single smartphone application. (Toyota)

Headed by President and CEO Zack Hicks, the North American Toyota Connected team is responsible for both the connectivity/infotainment software and hardware installed in the region’s vehicles. The last five years have led to an all-new, globally scalable architecture, its capabilities and new interface launching in the U.S. in the new Toyota Tundra pickup truck (top), and the Lexus NX compact SUV. This new framework now is being deployed worldwide, with other OEMs also employing the system.

Organizing the data

According to Hicks, one of the driving forces behind the large investment was not solely to augment mobile devices, but to provide unique, vehicle-specific experiences. “When we launched this company, the first thing we had to do was to spend time organizing data, to enable and leverage the data sets,” Hicks said during a recent media roundtable. “And then we have an opportunity to stitch together those data sets in new ways to create these great services.”

According to Toyota Connected President and CEO Zack Hicks, it is leveraging customer and vehicle data to provide unique, vehicle-specific experiences, not to simply mimic mobile device capabilities. (Toyota)

“In just five years, we have now more than 300 engineers or team members here in North America. A little above 80% are software engineers,” Hicks claimed. “We're expanding our AI and ML space to power the next generation of experiences. In 2021 alone, we have 22 patents filed, 17 have been granted and one that's already fully implemented.”

The connectivity project, he said, required not only budget, but a mindset shift. “We brought to Toyota this agile scrum experience, which is interesting because it was kind of built on the Toyota way,” he said. “We are bringing agile into Toyota, and that's combined that spirit of kaizen with quick prototyping and high quality. We began Toyota Connected with about a $5 million investment. The company's now valued at about a billion dollars and we have offices in Plano, [Texas], London, and Chennai [India].”

“It's globally scalable,” Hicks continued. “We're using it in Australia and India, in addition to North America. We're also supporting other automotive companies. We've got Mazda on the platform and one other OEM that's in queue.”

Rebuilding the platform

One of the first big cornerstone projects for Toyota Connected was DriveLink, Toyota’s telematics service provider. Launched in 2019, Hicks described it as one of the industry’s most modern telematics platforms. “We tremendously improved our reliability from the large supplier that we were using in the past,” which he noted had an up time of about 93%. “We took that to 100% with our internal platform.”

The all-new multimedia system on the Toyota Tundra pickup truck took four years to develop, according to Steve Basra, COO of Toyota Connected, and is supported by Toyota’s state-of-the-art DriveLink telematics platform. (Toyota)

The vertical integration of hardware and software for the North American team has its advantages, Hicks described, letting its engineers develop a fully integrated experience. “At the highest level, on the Toyota Connected side, we focus on the cloud [applications] and artificial intelligence,” he said. “[We] are also responsible for the multimedia systems – which is hardware and the software for our Toyota and Lexus vehicles. This group is called Connected Technologies and works hand-in-hand with TC [Toyota Connected].” Hicks noted that Motor Trend said of the new infotainment system, “that they weren't exaggerating when they say it's a million times better.”

A North American first

The new multimedia system took four years to develop, according to Steve Basra, COO of Toyota Connected, allowing capabilities of the new telematics platform to be built in. “It was the first time we've actually done this in North America using our own engineers. And the first time that development was taken outside of Japan,” he said. “We started from scratch, and the contribution of Toyota Connected started, really, at the beginning with the user design.”

“We have this amazing team of UX designers who we built up to build that new interface, and we've been testing that interface with customers every week for the last three years,” Basra explained. The next task, he noted, was the system’s new digital assistant, something never undertaken before within Toyota. “We built a team around machine learning and natural-language understanding to build this new digital assistant, so when you get into our new vehicles, you could just use natural speech.”

“The system that the vehicle connects to, DriveLink, is that very first system. Previously, we'd been using external suppliers to do that. We brought that in-house so that we could control the whole ecosystem,” Basra noted. “From beginning to end, we have this one unique customer experience that we control. Four years ago, that would never have happened. It was Toyota Connect that helped drive that.”

Ongoing feature rollout

With a solid telematics foundation in place and an engineering team poised to exploit it, the Toyota Connected execs claimed more connected features are in the works, including services such as remote fueling/charging and “hot car” detection. “We're testing out sensors with the ability to use the same technology as sonar to detect a baby's heartbeat, or any life form,” Hicks said. “So even if they're not moving, can we detect that and be able to notify other services and partner with 911 responders, [and] be able to notify the parents' phones? Can we also flash the lights and honk the horn? Can we automatically roll down the windows?”

“We're starting to work on predictive analytics,” Basra added. “We'll be launching a new parking-garage locator in January [2022]. We're also building new hybrid coach systems that can tell a customer what percent of the time they were driving in hybrid [mode] so you can calculate how much money you're saving; that was developed together with our office in London.”

Toyota Connected also has a group working with its World Rally Championship (WRC) team in Europe, leveraging its machine learning and data science abilities to help the racing team prep their vehicles for each event. “The experience we're getting from the rally driving series, we're looking at that and trying to understand – whether it's this generation or our next generation of vehicles – how can we apply that,” Basra said. “If we have a GR [performance] vehicle, we can allow customers to be able to optimize their vehicle. [For] track days, we know that enthusiasts really want that type of feature.”

Software first, 5G inevitable

“One of the things that we talked about at Toyota now is a software-first approach. That is a little bit different having grown up in the auto industry where it was a very hardware kind of major-model change, or minor-model change release cycle,” Hicks said. “As we move into this continuous ability to update our services, we're looking at launching other new services that can be contextual and anticipate driver's needs. That's what we're focused on.”

Hicks mentioned that Toyota Connected currently is considering a partnership with Amazon and AT&T that would allow customers to be able to opt into Amber Alert services. “If you're driving down the road and there's an Amber Alert in your area, [we] can pop up a message to say, ‘Would you like to participate and use your outward facing camera?’ If you say, ‘Yes,’ then we will use that outward facing camera to look for that license plate and notify authorities,” he said. “We're trying to find ways to leverage the car, to make the customer's lives better and also make society better, and allow people to opt-in or opt-out, and still maintain their privacy.”

Hicks also noted that the connectivity investment extends beyond the software, as Toyota is pre-installing more-capable sensor suites on all its vehicles, irrespective of the vehicle’s option group. “All of the sensors that we've built for this next-generation of multimedia system, we're looking at a 100% deployment on all of our vehicles,” he said. “If a customer chooses to not use those services past the free enrollment period, it's at some cost for us. But we believe that we want these services to be available on all of our vehicles.”

As with any telematics-based service, the capabilities are only as good as the connection, a top-of-mind topic as 5G cellular systems have begun rolling out. “In our current generation of vehicles, we have not implemented 5G at this moment,” Basra said. “But as we look forward to the next generation, we are looking at 5G technology. And we're talking to the carriers about when is the 4G sunset going to happen?”

Hicks added that ultimately, 5G implementation essentially is inevitable. “I think we have to, right?” he said. “I think having all this traffic going from the vehicle to the cloud process, and then come back, we have to find a way to do more processing on the vehicle, or, as they're saying, doing more edge processing. And I think 5G enables us to do that in a faster, more ubiquitous way. So I think we have to move towards 5G on the vehicles.”