James Kuffner, the Outsider Reshaping Toyota

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A former Google roboticist, Kuffner is Toyota’s youngest board member, one of only two non-Japanese directors, and someone observers see as a potential successor to President Akio Toyoda. Kuffner joined Toyota’s board last year with a mission: Turn the 84-year-old manufacturer into a cutting-edge company that competes with Apple, Google, Tesla, and others in autonomous driving and additional smart technologies.

In February the company broke ground on Woven City, a multibillion-dollar development at the base of Mount Fuji. (The name is a nod to Toyota’s history as a maker of automatic looms.) The 175-acre area is being designed with separate lanes for pedestrians, bikers, and self-driving cars, which will provide transport, deliver packages, and act as mobile storefronts. The community will be hydrogen-powered and feature smart homes that automatically dispose of trash and restock refrigerators, among other capabilities. Initially about 360 people will live there—Toyota employees and “visiting scientists, families, and retirees,” according to the company—with that number eventually rising into the thousands. Having dedicated space to test how autonomous vehicles interact with other parts of urban infrastructure is valuable for Toyota as it tries to become a “mobility company” that expands beyond the realm of cars.

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