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Toyota lets AI loose on hunt for fuel cell, battery breakthrough

(Bloomberg) -- Toyota Motor Corp. is betting the keys to longer-range electric cars and cheaper fuel cells may lie in machines that act like humans.

The Japanese carmaker’s Toyota Research Institute is pledging $35 million over the next four years toward putting artificial intelligence to work on identifying new materials that can be used in batteries or catalysts that power hydrogen-fueled cars. Using AI and machine learning will expedite development by a magnitude of years, according to the company.

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A cross section of the Toyota Motor Corp. Mirai fuel-cell vehicle (FCV) is displayed in the showroom of the company's headquarters in Toyota City, Aichi, Japan, on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. Toyota plans to rely on hydrogen to all but rid its lineup of traditional-engine models by 2050. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

“We want to accelerate the rate at which we can design or discover new materials for fuel cells and batteries,” Eric Krotkov, chief operating officer of TRI, said in a phone interview.

Faster discoveries of advanced materials will support Toyota’s broader goal of ridding 90 percent of carbon emissions from its vehicles by 2050. The automaker has placed a big bet that hydrogen-powered vehicles will be the future of clean transportation, though President Akio Toyoda late last year also took a hands-on role in planning electric vehicles.

Toyota said it will collaborate on the materials research with schools including Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as U.K.-based materials-science company Ilika Plc. TRI is in discussions with several additional research partners, according to a statement released Thursday.

Beyond materials research, TRI also is working to develop driverless cars that help older people “age in place” rather than have to move into nursing homes or care facilities. The Japanese automaker hired Gill Pratt, formerly the U.S. military’s top robotics engineer, in 2015 to lead the institute.

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