By Monica Mehta
March 6, 2018
What has eight wheels, no driver, and could completely transform the transportation economy?
Toyota started answering that question in January with a blockbuster announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The world’s largest automaker unveiled a radical new concept: a driverless, fully electric vehicle that can serve interchangeably as a taxi, delivery van, mobile store, office, restaurant, even a hotel room. It’s called e-Palette, and it could revolutionize the idea of mobility.
The automotive industry is in the midst of a once-in-a-century transformation due to the confluence of four major technological advances: vehicles that are self-driving, connected to the internet, powered by electricity instead of fossil fuels, and shared or used on-demand.
A 2016 McKinsey report predicts that by 2030, as many as 15 percent of cars sold could be fully autonomous, up to 50 percent could be electrified, and up to 10 percent could be shared (reducing sales of private-use vehicles). “More than 30 percent of miles driven in new cars sold could be from shared mobility,” the report states “On this trajectory, one out of three new cars sold could potentially be a shared vehicle as soon as 2050.”
To maintain its competitive advantage in this new landscape, Toyota is expanding from a company that just sells vehicles to one that also provides mobility services—moving people, products and services as efficiently as possible. This new business model will help Toyota compete with forward-looking competitors such as General Motors and Tesla, but more important, with ultra-innovative tech companies such as Dyson and Apple, which already are making forays into automated driving.
“It’s my goal to transition Toyota from an automobile company to a mobility company, and the possibilities of what we can build, in my mind, are endless,” Toyota President Akio Toyoda said from the stage at CES.
The e-Palette will play a major role in that transition. President Toyoda previewed the concept vehicle, which looks like a futuristic shipping container on eight wheels. It’s fully modular on the inside, so the interiors are interchangeable depending on the purpose: seats for ride-sharing, shelves and a counter for a mobile store, office or bedroom furniture for an office or hotel room. Owners can change the exterior display on the vehicle as well, depending on the purpose at the time. The vehicle comes in three sizes, ranging from about 13 to 23 feet, to accommodate a wide range of equipment and uses.
“The ‘e’ before ‘Palette’ stands for that emotional, ecological, economy and ecosystem,” says Keiji Yamamoto (pictured at top), executive vice president, Connected Company, and managing officer at Toyota. “Eventually, there will be various ways of getting into an e-Palette. You will be able to walk in, or easily move a wheelchair into it. You could even have a one-passenger e-Palette, or a skateboard type of vehicle which can be used for short distance movement.” (Toyota Connected is the carmaker’s data science initiative.)
For example, in the morning eight e-Palettes could connect with one another to serve rush-hour commuters. As traffic subsides, five of those vehicles could turn into delivery vehicles. When evening approaches, three of those e-Palettes can turn into restaurants—complete with traveling chefs—to serve a hungry crowd outside of a conference.
In other words, as mobility demands change over the course of the day, e-Palettes can be dispatched to meet those specific demands. But how will the vehicle know what customers want, and when they want it?
Mobility as a Service
Toyota calls the technology powering its e-Palettes, and potentially the mobility revolution, the Mobility Services Platform (MSPF). The platform will gather data from the company’s massive data center, including traffic, route-preference and safety data.
The MSPF will analyze usage trends, using the cutting-edge technology developed by Toyota and its partners, determining where and when the demand exists for specific services. How many people need to get from point A to point B at a certain time? How many people in a certain part of the city will order pizza for lunch? The idea is to then automatically dispatch e-Palettes to where they're needed.
How about a mobile gym with a personal trainer so you can work out, shower, and get dressed on your way to work?”
It’s an ambitious idea, and Toyota has enlisted some major players as part of its new “mobility alliance” to turn it into reality, including Amazon, Uber, Mazda, and Pizza Hut. Each partner company will provide development support starting from the design phase of the e-Palettes. One can imagine Amazon using them for product delivery, Uber developing a fleet of driverless taxis, and Pizza Hut creating pizza-making and -delivering mobile units.
Yamamoto says Toyota plans to partner with additional companies to develop more uses for the e-Palette. The thinking is that the MSPF will create a brand new “mobility economy,” where a variety of partners create completely novel products and services.
How about a mobile gym with a personal trainer so you can work out, shower, and get dressed on your way to work? Or a traveling urban hub of vehicles that provides instant food, entertainment and transport to a Burning Man festival? Or a fleet of e-Palettes dispatched by a city to provide medical services and shelter for homeless people on a snowy night? The possibilities really are endless.
Initially, Toyota plans to provide leasing, insurance, and fleet management services, letting partners build mobility businesses on the platform and manage their vehicles remotely. The e-Palette will also employ Toyota’s Guardian—a driver-assist system that monitors the environment to help identify hazards and avert crashes—to help ensure passenger safety. In addition, it will offer access to its global communications network and the Toyota Big Data Center, so companies can use its data to get potential cost-saving, revenue-boosting insights.
For companies that prefer to install their own automated driving systems—Uber, for example—the e-Palette will have an open, “plug and play” control interface.
“So far, especially in commercial vehicles, only the car manufacturer knows the control part—the coding for things like steering and breaking,” Yamamoto says. “With e-Palette, similar to smartphones we are making the control interface open so that partner companies can install their own driving system and vehicle management technology.”
Toyota will plan to put the self-driving vehicles to use at Tokyo’s 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. And it hopes to do feasibility testing worldwide beginning in the early part of that decade.
A New Mobility Society
In the short run, innovations such as the e-Palette will undoubtedly disrupt the auto industry, changing our views of private-car ownership.
In the long run, Toyota envisions something much larger: the creation of “a new mobility society” that not only moves people, products and services much more efficiently, but also transforms the way people live, travel, and work, Yamamoto says.
“The e-Palette could improve the efficiency of moving, reduce traffic in the cities, and provide more flexibility to our lives,” he says. “We are not offering the vehicles to people just as a moving tool, but as a way of user-friendly mobility that will greatly increase people’s freedom.”
Information technology plays a critical role in Toyota’s next-generation innovations. Oracle solutions are a part of the company’s overall data management and analysis landscape.
Photography By Isaac Brekken/The Verbatim Agency and Toyota