Boxy Toyota e-Palette concept is designed to transport both people and pizzas

At CES 2018, Toyota is trying to turn the entire concept of the auto industry on its head. The Japanese automaker unveiled a radical new concept vehicle that will be the basis for an equally unorthodox mobility service. It all sounds very exciting, until you lay eyes on the vehicle itself.

The Toyota e-Palette concept is a depressingly basic box on wheels, but that’s what Toyota thinks will work best in the future mobility-service economy. The automaker is assembling a diverse group of companies — including Amazon, Pizza Hut, Uber, Mazda, and DiDi Chuxing — to form the e-Palette Alliance. Toyota hopes the Alliance will eventually blend ridesharing with other businesses.

The e-Palette concept’s boxy design allows its interior to be reconfigured for a variety of uses, according to Toyota. It can be used to carry passengers in a ridesharing capacity or as a delivery vehicle. That’s exactly what Toyota’s partners want. Uber is developing its own self-driving cars, Pizza Hut tested an autonomous delivery vehicle with Ford, and Amazon seems hell bent on automating home delivery. An eventual production version will be available in three sizes, from 4 meters to 7 meters (13 feet to 22 feet), Toyota said.

The concept is capable of autonomous driving and over-the-air software updates, Toyota said. A Toyota-operated data center will help manage the vehicles, influencing everything from financing to maintenance, the company said. That should make it easier for fleet operators to keep track of their vehicles. Toyota’s approach seems aimed more at large corporate fleets than individual ownership.

Toyota plans to conduct feasibility testing of the e-Palette in multiple regions, including the United States, beginning in the early 2020s. The vehicles may also make an appearance at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Toyota’s head of autonomous driving previously said self-driving cars would be demonstrated on Tokyo’s Odaiba waterfront during the games.

It may be a nightmare for car enthusiasts, but the Toyota e-Palette concept represents the dream of the mobility-service economy. The involvement of companies like Amazon and Uber shows that there is considerable interest in replacing today’s privately owned cars with fleets of shared autonomous runabouts. But autonomous-driving technology will have to make some major leaps before that business model can be tested.