Toyota Motor Corp., trying to transform itself into a leader of the new driverless economy, unveiled both the concept vehicle and the big-name partners to make it a reality.

Amazon.com Inc. has signed on as a partner for Toyota’s new mobility alliance, which will develop fully autonomous electric vehicles to deliver packages, pizza and people to desired destinations. Also joining the e-commerce giant as partners are Pizza Hut, Uber Technologies Inc., Mazda Motor Corp. and Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing.

Toyota e-Palette concept vehicle Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Toyota e-Palette concept vehicle Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

“It’s my goal to transition Toyota from an automobile company to a mobility company, and the possibilities of what we can build, in my mind, are endless,” Akio Toyoda, the automaker’s president, said on stage Monday at CES in Las Vegas. Toyota’s news comes as major car manufacturers and tech giants gather this week at the event, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show, to showcase whole suites of products meant to overhaul human mobility. Auto companies from General Motors Co. to Tesla Inc. as well as interlopers like Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo are racing to bring fully self-driving cars to market, and the payoff will be massive for the ones who pull it off first.

Toyota’s vehicle unveiled at CES—called the e‐Palette concept—will come in three sizes and sport open interior layouts with flat floors to allow users to outfit them according to their needs. The larger vehicles resemble small buses and allow adults to stand up inside. The company suggested they could even be reconfigured as mobile hotel rooms.

Speedier Delivery

“We’re constantly looking for ways to innovate and help improve our logistics operations, and in this partnership with Toyota we’ll collaborate and explore new opportunities to improve the speed and quality of delivery for our customers,” Tim Collins, vice president of Amazon Logistics, said in an emailed statement.

In the near term, the alliance will focus on developing the battery-electric e-Palette, which will have an open‐source control interface that allows partner companies to install their own automated driving systems instead of Toyota’s, if desired. In addition, Toyota will provide an array of services to help e-Palette customers use their vehicles, including leasing and insurance support and fleet management. Users will also have access to its global communications network and a so-called Toyota Big Data Center.

“What’s unique about our system is we offer all the software, all the hardware and all the financial tools you would need to run mobility as a service, soup to nuts,” Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said. The process is intended to be cashless, allowing users to make payments automatically once they’ve gained access to the vehicles with smart keys or a facial recognition system.

Pizza Pies

Pizza Hut, a Yum! Brands Inc.-owned chain that built its reputation on sit-down pizza service, said its partnership with Toyota could help it deliver more pizza faster, with driverless cars potentially helping during particularly busy times, like Super Bowl Sunday.

Even though driverless delivery is still a few years off, the tie-up with Toyota could make the company’s delivery system safer and more efficient by analyzing driver data, according to Artie Starrs, who runs Pizza Hut’s U.S. operation.

The largest of the three major pizza chains in the U.S., Pizza Hut has lagged behind its rivals on technology and struggled to shed its roots as a sit-down dining destination in an industry where delivery is king.

“It’s an incredibly symbiotic relationship,” Starrs said. “This reinforces Pizza Hut as a delivery-centric brand.”

Competitive Landscape

Toyota is not alone in exploring such concepts. Ford Motor Co. conducted a test this past fall with Domino’s Pizza Inc. to gauge consumer appetite for driverless-pizza delivery. Nissan Motor Co. plans to unveil at the Hanover Motor Show in Germany in September a driverless van that can transfer packages from central warehouses to surrounding homes. GM plans to have its self-driving cars ready for a ride-share service next year.

“They’ve been in a ‘wait and see’ mode while other companies including Volkswagen, Daimler, Ford and General Motors have been making big commitments in the mobility-as-a-service space,” Mike Ramsey, a transportation analyst with researcher Gartner Inc., said of Toyota. “With this announcement, Toyota in joining the fray in a more direct way.”

Toyota has small stakes in launch partners Uber and Mazda and is already seeking additional partners to either utilize the self-driving vehicles or help develop the technology. Didi, the only China-based company joining the alliance, will cooperate globally with Toyota, according to an emailed statement.

Founding Family

“It’s a general rule when you’re the very best at the old order, then you’re probably the last guy to sign onto the new order,” Jim Womack, founder of the Lean Enterprise Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said of Toyota. “Akio’s got his head in the game now.”

Toyoda, 61, is a scion of Toyota’s founding family who’s served as president of the carmaker since 2009. He’s said frequently the company needs to accelerate the pace of its technological innovations. He’s also said that since Toyota can’t create the future of mobility all by itself, it needs to get better at creating partnerships, even with companies like Amazon, which he cited in August as a potential competitor.

“While I do believe in healthy competition, I’m less concerned about getting there first as I am about getting it right and about finding ways to use technology to benefit as many as possible,” Toyoda said in Las Vegas. “For me, e-Palette is one such example.”

The automaker plans to have the self-driving fleets available at Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic Games. Additional testing, including in the U.S., will begin in the early 2020s.