In the race to autonomous mobility, battle lines are being drawn. Here at CES, fresh from last year’s superb Concept-i, Toyota showed a new concept called E-palette.
It’s one piece in the large jigsaw which sees Toyota transitioning from a car company into a mobility company – one which, in his press conference speech, Akio Toyoda said, “would serve anyone on the planet, wishing to go across the country, across town or just across the room.”
But the real star of the show is the e-Palette. It’s a vision for electric, autonomous future mobility services and mobility commerce. Over six meters long and two meters wide and high, the vehicle is high enough for a ninety-fifth percentile human to stand up in, which means it can serve a very wide variety of uses.
Essentially a fully electric, reconfigurable vehicle (it’d be unfair to refer to it as like a van) Toyota envisages e-Palette as a platform which could be used for ride-sharing, as a mobile office, as a hotel room on wheels, an autonomous delivery unit or mobile market place. What’s more, in the course of a day it can be reconfigured to be any one of those solutions, as required.
Toyota showed a video illustrating the e-Palette acting in each of these scenarios – its large, screen-dominated exterior meaning that the exterior branding can be almost entirely taken over by the company using the e-Palette. The interior can be made to be fully on show, or hidden from view, making the e-Palette an ideal pop-up shop; when you want to try clothes on, simply opaque the window/screens to protect your modesty.
They even showed how the e-Palette could be used in a sort of ‘swarm’ village – multiple units creating a mobile, temporary city. Did Toyota just kill Burning Man?
As a piece of automotive design, there’s little more to say about the exterior, other than to note how small the (eight) wheels are. That’s so the unit’s floor inside can be completely flat and free of intrusion. But the big picture here is the vision of the car maker’s role in the future.
The concept is built on Toyota’s new “Autono-MaaS” platform, Toyoda-san pointing out that, while everyone around him is talking about the next phase of the auto industry being software dominated, he sees it as being about platforms – to provide mobility on a much wider scale, and with a wide variety of partners.
To this end, perhaps the most important and impressive aspect of the e-Palette announcement was that it launches with Amazon, Uber, Didi, Pizza Hut and Mazda all already on board as partners. Toyota’s platform will act as safety guardian for the autonomous driving capabilities whichever brand uses the e-Palette, however.
Unlike many concepts, it’s not pie in the sky; Toyota will have the concept ready for deployment at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The e-Palette might not look like the most futuristic vehicle from a form and styling point of view, but it is representative of the change happening at car companies as they start to think about the possibility that autonomous driving, electric vehicles and advanced software platform partnerships bring.
It’s interesting to see Toyota pushing down the large, monovolume, ‘room on wheels’ route, while German brands continue to prefer what are, in effect, exaggerated limousines.
It’s also interesting to muse more widely on how an industry once so secretive and averse to the idea of ‘not invented here’ is recognising the need for partnerships and collaboration to survive. That seems to be part of the new automotive status quo.
As Toyoda-san summed up: “I know this is all hugely important, but what’s important to me is not that we are first. It’s that we get this right.”