Toyota, Partners Want to Deliver People & Packages Autonomously

The position of legacy automakers is not as secure as it once was.

The impending arrival of self-driving cars has opened up the market, allowing major tech companies and startups to infiltrate an industry that once was the exclusive domain of OEMs. It’s not totally infeasible that Google spinoff Waymo could become the leading American automaker in the second half of this century.

However, legacy automakers still have an opportunity to expand their business. As the fleets of vehicles used for ride-sharing and ride-hailing services grow, no one is in a better position to produce the vehicles for those fleets.

This is the approach being adopted by Toyota. Rather than acting defensively, Toyota made clear its intentions to be a player in the fleet space at CES in January.

The automaker introduced the e-Palette concept vehicle as a collaborative effort with Uber, Amazon, Mazda, Pizza Hut and ride-hailing company Didi. As the diversity of those partners suggests, e-Palette is a broad, ambitious concept that would aim to position Toyota at the center of a transformation in transportation.

“The automobile industry is clearly amidst its most dramatic period of change as technologies like electrification, connected and automated driving are making significant progress,” Toyota president Akio Toyoda noted in a statement. “Toyota remains committed to making ever better cars. Just as important, we are developing mobility solutions to help everyone enjoy their lives… This announcement marks a major step forward in our evolution towards sustainable mobility, demonstrating our continued expansion beyond traditional cars and trucks to the creation of new values including services for customers.”

The e-Palette concept is fully autonomous and fully electric.

The idea is to offer an open-source platform for third parties to customize the vehicles to suit their exact needs. The vehicles are designed to be appealing to all types of fleet managers, whether it be those shuttling humans — Uber and Didi — or those shuttling goods, such as Amazon and Pizza Hut. Digital renderings of the vehicle from Toyota show other uses, as well: Mobile stores, restaurants and work spaces.

As has become customary for autonomous concept vehicles, the e-Palette features a unique, quirky design. But the boxy-with-rounded-edges design is not whimsical for whimsy’s sake. A barrier-free interior with a low floor allows for maximum space in the cabin, enabling a wide variety of possible uses. The concept includes three different lengths of e-Palette, which Toyota says could allow for a space large enough to serve as a hotel room.

The concept was the recipient of the inaugural Edmunds CES Tech Driven Hackmotive Award.

“Buzzwords like future mobility and autonomy reverberate throughout the show floor at CES, but Toyota’s innovative e-Palette concept stands out from the crowd thanks to its near-term implementation, established partnerships and visionary execution,” Edmunds editor-in-chief Alistair Weaver wrote in a statement. “The e-Palette concept vehicle embraces the transformative ideals of the Hackomotive Award and has real potential to help usher in a new era of transportation.”

While its design may be different from what we see on our roads today, the versatility of the e-Palette could make it a hit among fleet owners with vehicles performing a variety of duties, and its roomy cabin could make it a hit among passengers, too.

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