Toyota unveils customisable self-driving e-Palette vehicle

Big-name partners signed up to make it a reality include Amazon, Uber and Pizza Hut

The president of Toyota Motor Corporation, Akio Toyoda, speaks about the e-Palette at the International Consumer Electronics Show on Monday. Photograph: Larry W Smith/EPA

Toyota Motor, trying to transform itself into a leader of the new driverless economy, unveiled both the concept vehicle and the big-name partners to make it a reality.

Amazon. com has signed on as a partner for Toyota's new mobility alliance, which will develop fully autonomous electric vehicles to deliver packages, pizza and people to desired destinations. Also joining the e-commerce giant as partners are Pizza Hut, Uber Technologies, Mazda Motor and Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing.

"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," Akio Toyoda, the automaker's president, said on stage Monday at CES in Las Vegas.

Toyota’s news comes as major car manufacturers and tech giants gather this week at the event, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), to showcase whole suites of products meant to overhaul human mobility.


Among the contenders at CES was Byton, a Nanjing-based company started by former BMW executives.

On Sunday, it became the first Chinese automaker to hold a large-scale unveiling at CES in Las Vegas – a $45,000 electric SUV using facial recognition to unlock doors, Amazon’s Alexa to entertain and a 49-inch screen across the dashboard.

Future of driving

It may be a harbinger of driving’s future. It also shows what China’s doing to grab that business now as the government pushes gas guzzlers off its roads.

XPeng Motors, backed by funding from Alibaba, is set to unveil a production model on Tuesday. That's on the heels of launches by new entrants such as NIO, backed by Asia's biggest technology company, Tencent Holdings; and WM Motor Technology.

China’s drive to curb pollution and reduce dependence on imported oil, coupled with generous government subsidies, is spawning dozens of new-energy automobile startups in what’s already the world’s biggest market for vehicles. The fledgling carmakers now have the task of luring customers from Tesla and giants such as Volkswagen and Toyota, which have about $100 billion combined in cash, equivalents and short-term investments to fight back.

"China is the world's fastest-growing and biggest electrcic vehicle market, but at the same time, it's short of global players and companies producing products that can compete with the best premium players in the world," Daniel Kirchert, Byton's chief operating officer and co-founder, said at the concept SUV's unveiling.

Mobile hotel rooms

Toyota’s vehicle unveiled at CES – called the e-Palette concept – will come in three sizes and sport open interior layouts with flat floors to allow users to outfit them according to their needs. The larger vehicles resemble small buses and allow adults to stand up inside. The company suggested they could even be reconfigured as mobile hotel rooms.

"We're constantly looking for ways to innovate and help improve our logistics operations, and in this partnership with Toyota we'll collaborate and explore new opportunities to improve the speed and quality of delivery for our customers," Tim Collins, vice-president of Amazon Logistics, said in an emailed statement.

In the near term, the alliance will focus on developing the battery-electric e-Palette, which will have an open-source control interface that allows partner companies to install their own automated driving systems instead of Toyota’s, if desired.

In addition, Toyota will provide an array of services to help e-Palette customers use their vehicles, including leasing and insurance support and fleet management. Users will also have access to its global communications network and a so-called Toyota Big Data Center.

"What's unique about our system is we offer all the software, all the hardware and all the financial tools you would need to run mobility as a service, soup to nuts," Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said. The process is intended to be cashless, allowing users to make payments automatically once they've gained access to the vehicles with smart keys or a facial recognition system. – Bloomberg