Toyota unveiled its new e-Palette concept vehicle this morning at a press conference at CES 2018. Its boxy silhouette is a bit dull at first glance, but that's okay. The e-Palette gets much more interesting the more you imagine how Toyota and its partners plan on filling and then re-filling this autonomous box on wheels.
Much of the automotive news at CES this year are platform announcements, broad looks at the technologies, software, sensors and partnerships that will underpin future mobility. The e-Palette is interesting because it's both an announcement of a mobility alliance and future platform, but it's also by design the physical embodiment of that platform: A sort of blank slate for a variety of transportation needs.
The e-Palette concept is the first fruit of the labors of Toyota's newly formed e-Pallet Alliance, also announced today at CES. Along with launch partners that include Amazon, Mazda, Pizza Hut, Uber and DiDi (a major Chinese ride-sharing company), Toyota will collaborate on future planning, concepts and evaluation of "Mobility as a Service" applications, all powered by Toyota's technologies and, of course, proprietary Mobility Services Platform (MSPF).
So, the concept is basically a futuristic box set atop Toyota's next-generation battery electric platform and powered by the automaker's future autonomous vehicle tech. It comes in three sizes ranging from 4 meters (about 13 feet) to approximately 7 meters (around 23 feet) and is purposely designed to be flexible and reconfigurable to accommodate a wide range of equipment and an even broader range of uses.
Amazon or Pizza Hut may one day use the e-Palette for automated deliveries, while Uber envision autonomous ride sharing. The concept could be anything from a mobile hotel room or workspace to a food truck or a pop-up shop on wheels. Each e-Palette is also designed to be shared between businesses and to quickly transition between applications. So, a particular vehicle could serve as public transit during the day and be quickly converted for shipping packages overnight. Even the exterior appearance can be quickly switched by changing the exterior graphics.
Toyota hopes the e-Palette concept (or technologies very much like it) can be put into use during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Plus, the automaker also has plans for testing the viability of the e-Palette concept in various regions, including the United States, in the early 2020s.
Until then, Toyota and the rest of its Alliance will be putting their heads together to brainstorm ways we'll interact with these sharable, shapeshifting, self-driving shipping containers well into the future.