Toyota is developing an all-electric, driverless shuttle that will be used specifically for commercial services in partnership with major players like Amazon, Didi, Pizza Hut — and Uber, reports Recode.
Working with one of the world’s largest car manufacturers on a commercial autonomous service is a significant opportunity for each of these companies, but it could also represent a new kind of self-driving relationship for the ride-hail company.
Aside from Toyota, which invested in Uber in May 2016, Uber is also working with Volvo and Daimler on driverless cars. Those relationships represent opposite sides of a spectrum of possible business models. Uber’s work with Toyota may fall somewhere in between.
As it exists today, Uber’s relationship with Volvo entails agreeing to buy 24,000 cars which will be outfitted with the ride-hail company’s proprietary self-driving technology and software. With Daimler, the agreement is simply that the German automaker will leverage Uber’s ride-hail network.
Toyota’s relationship with Uber is somewhere in the middle. As with Volvo, Uber will integrate its own end-to-end self-driving tech into these shuttles. But like their deal with Daimler, Uber acts as an open platform for a manufacturer’s vehicles, though it’s still unclear which company will ultimately own the cars.
Uber said it decided to incorporate its own self-driving technology instead of using Toyota’s because that allowed them a better sense of how quickly it could deploy its software, according to Jeff Miller, its head of business development. That stands in contrast to how Uber worked with Daimler, a partnership that relied on the carmaker’s self-driving tech. Unlike both deals, Uber expects to have a certain degree of control over the in-car experience with Toyota’s shuttle, according to Miller.
“Creating a custom cockpit that is designed around our rider experience is unique,” he told Recode. “There’s not a single [self-driving car] in the world today that’s purpose built with ride-share in mind.”
It’s unusual for a car company to relinquish control over its in-car experience. Many have feared becoming metal benders for tech companies hungry to control customer engagement. But that’s not how Miller thinks of Toyota. “Uber certainly does not see [Toyota] as a metal bender,” he said. “There’s a lot of exploration to be done about what the business model that undergirds this platform will be.”
Some questions left to be sorted — aside from which entity will own the vehicles — include who will own the charging infrastructure, fleet operations and maintenance, and which entity will provide which technologies. “Uber has an open mind,” he said. “As does Toyota. I would hate to get specific now and limit the areas of exploration.”
But as Toyota works with more ride-hail competitors (and Uber’s competitors consolidate, such as Didi’s recent acquisition of Brazilian rival 99), differentiating the vehicles operating on the network is increasingly important. Uber’s big advantage, Miller contends, is that the company is designing the self-driving technology that is going into the cars, and it’s specifically designed around ride-sharing.
“Having bespoke autonomy systems for ride-sharing is a huge advantage to us,” he said. “The use cases that we’re developing around and testing every day are in the ride-sharing context, which is different than an automaker.”
The initial applications for Toyota’s shuttle, called e-Palette, will vary company to company but for the most part seem to focus on creating an on-demand retail experience — with the exception of Uber.
During the keynote at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the company focused a great deal on the implications for e-commerce and retail — pitching the shuttle as a roving storefront. But the partnership with Uber will be largely focused on its primary business: Shuttling people around.
- Toyota e-Palette concept shuttle Toyota