Toyota's Woven software unit gets new leader for digital cars

TOKYO — James Kuffner, the American computer whiz who has led Toyota’s software subsidiary since 2018, will resign as chief executive at Woven by Toyota and hand the wheel to an automated driving veteran as the Japanese automaker readies the launch of a key operating system for cars.

In announcing a wide-ranging organizational overhaul on Thursday, Toyota said Hajime Kumabe will take over as Woven’s CEO on Oct. 1. Kumabe is currently CEO of J-QuAD Dynamics, an automated driving joint venture between several Toyota Group suppliers.

Kuffner will slide over to serve as a senior fellow at a newly created Software Development Center being set up inside Toyota to better coordinate the rollout of a critical automotive operating system around 2025.

The system, called Arene, is Toyota’s bid to introduce programmable, next-generation digital cars sometimes likened to smartphones on wheels.

Toyota said the reorganization will strengthen ties with top supplier Denso to turbocharge the implementation phase of the upcoming software-defined vehicles running on Arene.

CEO Koji Sato plans to deploy Arene in vehicles from 2025 and introduce it in the company’s next-generation battery electric vehicle from 2026. Toyota expects the operating system to help reduce costs, improve customer value and speed the time to market for new models and updates.

Denso connection

Arene’s development has been spearheaded by Kuffner at Woven by Toyota, which changed its name from Woven Planet Holdings earlier this year.

Kuffner, 52, joined Toyota in 2016 and has led the software unit since 2018. At the newly created Software Development Center, Kuffner will be responsible for training future generations of in-house software coders at Toyota.

Woven by Toyota will continue its work on vehicle software, including systems that underpin automated driving, as well as on the development of social infrastructures for new mobility societies, as exemplified by its Woven City town-of-tomorrow project.

Kumabe will resign on Sept. 30 from his post at J-QuAD Dynamics, a company founded in 2019 between Toyota suppliers Denso, Aisin, Advics and JTEKT. The company was formed to create integrated software-driven vehicle control systems.

Akihiro Sarada, currently the head of Toyota’s midsize vehicle unit, will become president of the new Software Development Center.

Sarada, a previous chief engineer of the Toyota Crown sedan, is known for his skill at cross-functional coordination and for having the trust and understanding of Chairman Akio Toyota from his work on cars with better driving dynamics.

Toyota said better collaboration with Denso is a key goal of the reorganization.

As part of the change, Denso Chief Technology Officer Yoshifumi Kato will serve as an executive vice president at the Software Development Center, while keeping his current role at Denso.

Personnel changes

Among other updates announced by Toyota, Julie Hamp – the former Toyota global chief communications officer who now serves as an advisor to Chairman Toyoda – was identified as a board member of Woven by Toyota. She assumed that position earlier this year.

Kuffner, the goateed American computer guru who has led the high-tech company since its beginning, was taken off the board of directors at Toyota earlier this year.

Around that time, Woven by Toyota also got its latest new name. In January 2021, it dropped the name TRI-AD and adopted the name Woven Planet Holdings to reflect the interwoven world of modern mobility and hark back to Toyota’s corporate origins as a maker automatic looms.

Woven by Toyota was selected to better leverage the Toyota brand.

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 lynchpin is an underlying operating system, now under development, called Arene. It will allow for “programmable cars.”

Arene edge

Woven Planet says Arene will be as groundbreaking as Microsoft Windows and Apple iOS were for personal computers and smartphones, ushering in a new era for automobiles. Executives say it will allow car software to be developed in parallel with hardware, slashing development time.

Neither Toyota nor Woven have said what vehicle will first get the new software system.

But it debuts one year ahead of the planned introduction of a next-generation EV platform that Toyota hopes will make the company’s electric vehicles less costly and better performing.

To date, Woven has delivered only one major product, the Teammate Advance Drive Level 2 automated driving system that is used in the Lexus LS and Toyota Mirai sedans. That software launched in April 2021 with two over-the-air updates later that year.

Executives at Toyota are banking on Arene as the big breakthrough.

Under his tenure, Kuffner set up Woven Planet and rapidly scaled up its operations to now include 2,000 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 began construction of Woven City, a living laboratory for new mobility technologies and infrastructure in the foothills of Mount Fuji.

The Woven City project is overseen by Akio Toyoda’s son Daisuke. The first phase of construction is scheduled to finish next year, with the first trials starting in 2025.

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