Toyota software unit repositioned, raising questions about future – Automotive News

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Toyota CEO Koji Sato
TOKYO — Electric vehicles took center stage when incoming Toyota CEO Koji Sato outlined plans to introduce a new EV platform and “drastically change” the way the company does business.
But another overhaul is underway that’s just as important to Toyota’s bold electrified future — the development of the software needed to run those battery-powered automobiles.
Woven Planet Holdings, Toyota’s critical software-first company tasked with programming its next-generation digital cars, is itself going through some reinvention.
Among changes Sato identified in last month’s business road map were tweaks affecting the spinoff, founded in 2018 as Toyota Research Institute-Advanced Development.
Woven CEO James Kuffner, the goateed American computer guru who has led the high-tech company since its beginning, will be taken off the board of directors at Toyota Motor Corp.
Kenta Kon, meanwhile, outgoing Toyota Motor CFO, will give up that role but keep his CFO role at Woven, a position he has held since 2021, as the subsidiary moves closer to key product launches. The move is meant to help Kon laser focus his attention on accelerating Woven’s business.
Finally, Woven Planet is getting a new name, for a second time. In January 2021, it dropped the name TRI-AD to adopt current name Woven Planet to reflect the interwoven nature of modern mobility and to hark back to Toyota’s corporate origins as a maker of automatic looms. From April 1, the venture will be called Woven by Toyota.
Woven Planet CEO James Kuffner will leave the board at Toyota Motor Corp. in June.
The name change may strengthen the software subsidiary’s brand identity, while inserting the word Toyota into it could also help Woven recruit engineers.
Woven said it will explain the decision to change names in due time.
“We have continuously made improvements to how we best support the development of advanced software that will bring value for customers and support Toyota’s transformation into a mobility company,” spokesperson Yuri Kanai said. “We are planning to share our thoughts behind the name change in the weeks [ahead], so let us share our thoughts then.”
Kuffner’s departure from the Toyota parent company board could give Woven added independence and provide its CEO more time to focus on developing Woven’s business.
But some analysts say taking the Woven boss off the Toyota board could short-circuit influence from the all-important software sector at the top tier of the automaker’s management.
“Removing Woven from the decision-making hierarchy to that of a reactive organ within the company ensures that Toyota will not achieve a really functional software-defined vehicle anytime soon,” said Conrad Layson, senior alternative propulsion analyst at AutoForecast Solutions.
“Mr. Kuffner’s board seat meant that software was recognized as being vital to the company’s transformation to building a software-defined vehicle,” he added.
As Toyota’s automated driving and artificial intelligence subsidiary, Woven is expected to play a critical role in making the Japanese carmaker’s vehicles faster to develop, less costly to build, more attractive to customers and better performing on the road. The linchpin is an underlying operating system called Arene, now under development, that will allow for “programmable cars.”
Woven Planet says Arene will be as groundbreaking for vehicles as Microsoft Windows and Apple iOS were for personal computers and smartphones. Executives say it will allow car software to be developed in parallel with hardware, slashing development time.
Arene is scheduled to come to market in 2025. Neither Toyota nor Woven has said what vehicle will get the new software system first.
But it debuts one year ahead of the planned introduction of a next-generation EV platform that Toyota hopes will make the company’s EVs less costly and better performing.
Sato succeeds Akio Toyoda as Toyota CEO from April 1. In talking about his upcoming tenure, Sato touted the potential of Woven and Arene for spurring a new era of automaking.
“By listening to what cars have to say and by controlling information to a higher, more integrated degree, we can increase the value of cars in a way that is tailored to each customer, such as by improving fuel efficiency, optimizing ride quality and supporting safe driving,” Sato said.
“The software platform Arene will help us to achieve that world,” he said. “Arene will also lead to new services through collaboration with dealers and apps.
“We will continue to work on making cars intelligent through both hardware and software,” Sato added.
As a new non-Japanese influence on the board, Toyota’s Britain-born global design chief Simon Humphries will be appointed from June, pending shareholder approval.
Humphries was simultaneously promoted to Toyota’s chief branding officer.
The changes seem designed to jump-start Woven’s activities as Arene nears deployment and the wider industry gets engaged in software-defined vehicles.
In October, Hyundai Motor Group said it will invest about $12.6 billion through 2030 to develop and deploy software-defined vehicles.
That rollout includes the creation of a new operating system for over-the-air updates in all Hyundai, Kia and Genesis vehicles by 2025.
To date, Woven has delivered only one major product, the Teammate Advanced Drive Level 2 automated driving system used in the Lexus LS and Toyota Mirai sedans. That software launched in April 2021 with two over-the-air updates later that year.
Toyota executives see Arene as the big breakthrough.
In the meantime, Kuffner has set up Woven Planet and rapidly scaled up its operations to now include 1,800 employees worldwide. That total covers engineers and programmers brought in through an aggressive acquisition spree that included the half-billion-dollar purchase of the autonomous driving division of American ride-hailing company Lyft.
In addition to kicking off development of Arene, Kuffner also has begun construction of Woven City, a living laboratory for new mobility technologies and infrastructure in the foothills of Mount Fuji outside of Tokyo.
Last month, the Woven City project, overseen by Toyoda’s son Daisuke, commemorated two years since its groundbreaking. The first phase of construction is scheduled to finish next year, with first trials starting in 2025 and an initial population of 360 residents.
“Woven’s mission is to consider, together with Toyota, the shape that mobility, including social infrastructure, should take to create a new mobility society,” Sato said.
“That is why, more than ever, Toyota and Woven will unite to accelerate the development of Arene and strongly pursue demonstration tests in the mobility test course city of Woven City.”
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