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Toyota sees the battery-electric, fully autonomous e-Palette as a modular and scalable solution for mobility business and services (all images: Toyota).

Toyota unveils autonomous e-commerce concept vehicle, development alliance

Toyota used the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), to reveal an all-new, battery-electric commercial vehicle targeted for emerging e-commerce and mobility business applications. The pod-like e-Palette vehicle is designed to employ certain Toyota-developed foundation technologies but to also be flexible enough to allow companies purchasing or leasing the vehicle to apply their own or a preferred automated-driving system.

In addition, the e-Palette, which is intended to be built in three different sizes, also is the centrepiece of a new mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) development alliance Toyota formed with initial partners Amazon, Didi, Mazda, Pizza Hut and Uber. Toyota said the e-Palette Alliance launch partners “will collaborate on vehicle planning, application concepts and vehicle verification activities.”

Toyota is developing the e-Palette because it intends to be a key supplier of mobility hardware and services, including collection and distribution of the “big data” widely expected to be a key revenue stream for Maas companies. Toyota president and member of the board of directors Akio Toyoda indicated the e-Palette and its accompanying development alliance mark a watershed for the company’s automaking business:

“This announcement marks a major step forward in our evolution towards sustainable mobility,” Toyoda said in release issued during the CES 2018 unveiling, “demonstrating our continued expansion beyond traditional cars and trucks to the creation of new values—including services—for customers.”

Toyota said it plans to conduct feasibility testing of the e-Palette Concept in various places around the world, including the United States, starting in “the early 2020s.” But the company apparently intends to showcase functional e-Palette vehicles at the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

Three sizes, spectrum of potential uses

The electric e-Palette concept revealed at CES 2018 is the largest of what is envisioned as a three-size lineup of autonomous vehicles with lengths varying from 4 m (13.1 f) to 7 m (23 f). The e-Palette Concept revealed at CES was 4800 mm long, 2000 mm wide and 2250 mm high. The company said e-Palette’s flat and barrier-free interior and low floor mean almost any imaginable interior configuration could be fitted, such as a passenger-carrying ride-share layout or a mobile hotel room. The design also is intended to enable quick transition between interior layouts.

Equally important, Toyota said that although the vehicle’s “foundation” controls incorporate the company’s “Guardian” safety-oriented architecture, it designed the e-Palette to allow potential customers to use their preferred automated-driving controls, with the Guardian system acting “as a safety net to help ensure appropriate operation.”

Gil Pratt, who leads the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) where much of the company’s autonomous-vehicle development takes place, told reporters immediately following the e-Palette’s CES introduction, “At TRI, we are unafraid of competition. If somebody wants to use a certain (automated driving-controls) suite, they can still use e-Palette.”

Services Emphasis

An equally intriguing calling card for e-Palette is Toyota’s Mobility Services Platform (MSPF) to advance a suite of connected-vehicle services and data logging for e-Palette users: “The new alliance will create a broad-based ecosystem of hardware and software support designed to help a range of companies utilize advanced mobility technology to better serve customers,” Toyota said in a release.

Zach Hicks, CEO and president of Toyota Connected, told reporters, “That’s why we brought in a variety of partners – to help us develop it.”

Launched in 2016, the MSPF is Toyota’s framework for connected-vehicle applications, providing a full suite of services to support MaaS, ranging from vehicle leasing and insurance to fleet and big-data management.

Apart from the planned deployment at the 2020 Olympics, Toyota officials provided no definitive timeline for when e-Palette vehicles might be in series production or which, if any, of the existing development partners would deploy the vehicles in public use.

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