Commentary

Toyota announces it's in a new industry

Barely mentioning cars, the company lifts the curtain on its next 80 years.

Toyota

Akio Toyoda is done being just a carmaker. 

"What I personally believe is that future of mobility will be in the hands of those who really want to make society better," the President of Toyota said at a major company event in Athens, Greece, where there wasn't a Prius or RAV4 to be seen. Instead, personal assistance robots, intelligent companion devices, three-wheeled pod-like vehicles, and nearly a dozen of the world's top para-athletes represented the new direction of one of the world's largest automakers.

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Paralympian athlete Tatyana McFadden (top) and 87 year old former boxing champion Barbara Buttrick (bottom) are among the faces of Toyota's new main message that centers on creating ability via mobility. No cars in these commercials.

Toyota

"Start Your Impossible" is what Toyota calls its first global initiative which seeks to connect the dots between cars and every other form of mobility and ability. There is a strong emphasis on inclusion of people with varying abilities, the elderly, and those just drowning in the chaos of megacities.

Grounding what may sound like a vague Big Idea is Akio Toyoda, the most hands-on car lover running a major automaker. "I don't want to turn cars into commodities," he said in an interview released at Athens. "Cars are meant to be enjoyed. In English the word 'move' has both physical and emotional meanings. Cars are among the only manufactured products to which people should be emotionally attached." Apparently the future won't be all pods and no LFAs.  

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Toyota's Concept-i RIDE, Concept- i WALK and Concept i are visions of an electric future that speak more to how we use mobility than electrification.

Toyota

As the new mobility push was being announced in Athens, Toyota unveiled the Concept-i RIDE in Tokyo. It envisions easy integration of a wheelchair and AI to anticipate what you need from the vehicle. And the Concept-i WALK is best described as a smart electric scooter that might cover the last mile (or less) of many trips where a disproportionate amount of time is spent parking because you try to do so near your destination.

Toyota' new mobility thrust seems to have three roots, none of which are about showroom traffic: Akio Toyoda has a genuine interest in enabling those with mobility challenges, he tells personal stories of how important playing sports has been in his life, and he doesn't want his company to end up on the wrong end of the technological wave washing over the auto industry. It threatens to make the business of building cars almost quaint, with vehicles occupying the low end of the value equation while data and service companies create and dominate a new high end of it.

Toyota thinks it can surf that wave by embracing the widest possible definition of mobility while building most it from within. From its Toyota Research Institute and Toyota Mobility Foundation to the company's stubborn resistance toward Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Toyota acts, as a competitor used to say, like it has a better idea at a time when carmakers are often interested in acquiring or partnering their way to future relevance.

Toyota Research Institute was born a couple of years ago of a $1 billion dollar investment and integrations with no less than Stanford, MIT and University of Michigan. It's usually associated with work on autonomous cars, but CEO Gill Pratt is quick to broaden that. "I keep going back to my four kids, aged 4 to 27," says Pratt, "and watching as they learned to walk. The sheer joy of that for each one was all about autonomy; Not autonomous cars, autonomous people."

Such a broad vision of mobility with few tangible examples on the market will be a tough sell on a public conditioned to perk up its ears for model, color and financing incentives. "I see a place for myself making at least a 20 year commitment" to pursuing the vision, says the 61 year old Toyoda. "Being simply an OEM it is impossible for a single company to change the world."

Another hurdle Toyota must clear is its own humility. The slick 90-second vision of mobility that kicked off the first commercial break during Superbowl 51 was from Ford, not Toyota. (Ironically, Ford parted ways with CEO Mark Fields five months later, partly for not doing enough to deliver on that vision.) Toyota is competing for mobility mind share against companies like Google and Uber who have established themselves as fascinating mobility disruptors. Toyota is doing serious work in a wider spectrum of mobility and is real carmaker, emulated by companies around the world. A little more swagger will be necessary, not gauche.

A car company announcement that doesn't involve a sheet being yanked off a concept car while dry ice rolls smoke across the floor is odd. On November 1, Toyota will at least unveil its new ad and content campaign about mobility in over 40 countries, backed up by an eight year partnership with the Paralympics and Olympics and a new mobility site that will be coded to deliver a complete experience for people with default ability or almost any disability. 

Nobody has yet cracked the code on making "mobility" as sexy a concept as "horsepower" or "coupe" but Toyota seems willing to wager a lot that moving the sole focus away from cars is how to get there.

Editor's Note: For this event Toyota covered the CNET editor's travel costs as it did for many journalists at the event. Our judgments and opinions are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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