There's one thing that keeps Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda up at night. It's not a traditional car company like Honda, Ford or Nissan. Or what he's going to have for breakfast the next day. It's technology juggernauts like Facebook, Google and Apple and what might happen when they decide to enter the automotive industry proper. Will the company be ready? Is it doing enough to stay ahead of a potential broadside from Silicon Valley? The answer, Toyoda believes, is to morph Toyota into a data and smart mobility company. One that's less about selling cars and trucks and more about moving people, products and services in the most efficient way possible.
At the forefront of this change is the e-Palette, a fully autonomous electric vehicle with a deceptively simple design. It is, at its core, a box with eight wheels. The interior can be empty or filled with seats, screens or shelves. Toyota thinks it could be used for mass transit, parcel deliveries and temporary accommodation -- maybe all three on the same day, provided the furniture is easy enough to swap out. And there's no steering wheel, pedals or gearshift to worry about: The vehicle will be completely driverless. It is, in short, a blank slate for urban transportation.
At the heart of the e-Palette is the Mobility Services Platform (MSPF), a software layer that Toyota is developing for a seemingly inevitable future in which nobody owns a car. With MSPF, drivers can request and unlock a vehicle with their smartphone. On the back end, Toyota has fleet-management tools, so any company -- it could be Toyota itself or a company that owns a bunch of its vehicles -- can keep tabs on its driverless army remotely. Bryce Merckling, who works on mobility services at Toyota Connected, calls the e-Palette the "physical manifestation" of MSPF.
"It's the platform for the platform, essentially," he said.