LAS VEGAS -- The Wells Fargo wagon is a-comin' down the street -- without horses, or a driver, or even a steering wheel. And it's going to be a Toyota.
In limning his vision for the near future of automated vehicles, Toyota Motors CEO Akio Toyoda, at the Consumer Electronics Show here Monday, promised that the first and most pervasive use of self-driven vehicles will focus on mobile services and sharing. Toyota has committed to this emphasis by going beyond software, in Toyoda's words, and creating a mobile platform called e-Palette.
The services envisioned for e-Palette, said the Toyota chief in a succinct address to a packed audience at the Mandalay Bay Conference Center, will range from food wagons to mobile emergency rooms. Toyota's mobile commerce vehicles, presented in on-screen animation, will be streamlined bus shells as small as a Cooper Mini and as large as a semi trailer, but without horses, driver, steering wheel or internal combustion.
Toyota's transition from fossil fuel vehicles was one of Toyoda's points of emphasis.
The Toyota CEO said that his company is working to crack the resistance to electric vehicles (EV), which today represent less than one percent of the cars on the road in the United States. Toyoda said that by 2020, Toyota will be offering en different EV models. By 2025, he added, every Toyota produced will be either EV or offer an EV capability.
Rather than arguing over who is going to drive a car (a robot or a human), Toyota is talking about creating an e-Palette – on demand store, on-demand distribution, on-demand food truck, on-demand city. Pictured Toyota's demo at CES 2018.(Photo: EE Times)
Defining the challenge of turning his company from a carmaker to a mobile service company, Toyoda spoke boldly, stating the motto of the initiative as "Start Your Impossible." Adding a personal note, he said, "This is a mission statement for me, because I hate being told, 'It can't be done.'"
However, in reality, Toyota's approach of creating a mobility platform open to other developers and vendors -- with partners that already include Amazon, DiDi, Uber, Pizza Hut and Mazda -- is a departure from the utopian extravagance common to automated vehicle (AV) forecasts at CES.
Just the night before, Nvidia chief Jensen Huang painted a word-picture in which, in just a few years, the roads and streets would be teeming with personal AVs in which supercharged gamers are ensconced obliviously in the back seat waging virtual intergalactic warfare while the car intuitively outmaneuvers drunken human drivers in red Corvettes.
Companies partnering with Toyota on self-driving vehicles as seen at CES 2018 during Toyota's demo.(Photo: EE Times)
At least one observer, analyst Phil Magney, CEO of Vision Systems Intelligence, endorsed Toyota's more down-to-earth outlook. While insisting that a "closed system" proprietary to Toyota would be too restrictive, he said, "In concept, it all works to extend the boundaries beyond mobility. It's very compelling."
Toyota's evolution from personal self-driven cars to shared mobility, for uses that range from distribution and delivery of goods, to door-knock beauty parlors and hospital shuttles, was clearly influenced by Gill Pratt, whom Toyoda hired to launch and lead the Toyota Research Institute.
Pictured Toyota's demo at CES 2018.(Photo: EE Times)
At last year's CES, Pratt was the rare skeptic about the short-term promise of fully autonomous -- designated as Levels 4 and 5 -- self-driven cars. Speaking with reporters after Toyoda's presentation this year, Pratt emphasized that the criteria for Level 4 and 5 autonomy are broad, complex and rigorous. He warned that technology companies, auto makers and the press should not underestimate "how hard it is" to put a completely safe "chauffeur mode" car on the road with no human driver to intervene in an emergency.
It's easier, as CEO Toyoda explained, to launch fleets of autonomous vehicles that drive fixed routes, pre-programmed and GPS-guided, conveying people to shops and workplaces --or vice versa. As Toyoda said, "Today, you travel to the store. With e-Palette, the store will travel to you."
Toyoda, unlike many presenters at CES, added a note of modesty. Pointing out that he is the third generation of the Toyoda family to run his company, he cited a common perception that "the third generation ruins everything" and added, "Hopefully, that will not happen."
—Journalist David Benjamin is a special correspondent for EE Times.