Car maker's huge drive not only to think out of the box but "out of the car".

Take a look at this. What you're seeing is poised to become a large part of the future of road transportation.

Toyota call it the e-Palette, a fully autonomous electric vehicle with a simple but intriguing design – a strong nod towards the future from the company which, for many years, has been the world's biggest car maker.

And the e-Palette isn't just a concept car – you know, the futuristic, impossibly avant garde designs trotted out by car companies at auto and technology shows but which are never seen again. The e-Palette, Toyota says, will be in evidence at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

But why develop a vehicle like the e-Palette which is light years away from the normal practice of attractively designed cars, owned and operated by individual drivers?
It's all part of Toyota's global move to become not just a car maker but a "mobility company" and a "human movement company."


"Mobility For All", their new catch-cry, encompasses alternative energy sources, interconnected traffic and safety systems, human-assisting robots and new modes of personal transport.

The e-Palette looks ahead to a world where owning a car may become obsolete, an age of autonomous vehicles where our taken-for-granted concepts of human transport systems – car, bus, rail – are radically changed.

The e-Palette embodies that kind of change. It comes in three sizes: small, regular and large. They are all the same height and width but have different lengths.

The interior is a blank canvas – hence the reference to an artist's palette; the device which an artist uses to lay or mix colours before beginning a work.

That's what Toyota are offering: a vehicle which can be adapted for almost any purpose, be it mass people-moving, parcel deliveries and temporary accommodation.

It could be anything, even a mobile shoe store. You could shop online, then use your phone to call the e-Palette to your home or office for a fitting – perfect for a world where bricks and mortar retail outlets may be far less common.

The interior can be empty or filled with seats, shelves or screens – or just about anything. One e-Palette could move people in the morning, goods in the afternoon, and become a mobile pizza delivery vehicle at night (if the interior design is clever enough to accommodate easy transfers of, for example, seats for shelves.

The vehicle will be completely driverless, making it a firm blueprint for mass transit – and a mass of other uses – in the coming autonomous era.

At its core is Toyota's Mobility Services Platform (MSPF), software Toyota is developing for a seemingly inevitable future in which nobody owns a car. With MSPF, people can summon an e-Palette, board and pay with their mobile phone, for example.

In addition to supporting the services provided through MSPF, the e-Palette's open interface allows partner companies to install their own automated driving system and vehicle management technology – adapting the vehicle for their own purposes.

The company which brought us the Prius has to be respected in its drive towards the future. Cynics said the hybrid electrified car wouldn't catch on when it was introduced in 1997. At the 20th anniversary last year, nearly 4 million had been sold worldwide.

Now, however, Toyota is working with partners to develop the next stage of electrified transport. Amazon, Uber, Mazda, Pizza Hut and Chinese Uber rival Didi are joining an alliance that will help Toyota make the e-Palette a reality.

You can see why they are interested – Amazon might use hundreds to deliver parcels; Pizza Hut could make pizza delivery boys unnecessary; Uber has been into ride-sharing from its beginnings and using its own software in the e-Palette may enable them to keep a step ahead of competitors.

So instead of developing a vehicle and then touting it for sale, Toyota has decided to work with partners to shape the e-Palette in ways the market wants.

"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," said Toyota president Akio Toyoda in his speech at the US Consumer Electronics Show, where the e-Palette was unveiled recently.

He was determined to create new ways to move the company's customers across the country, across town, or "just across the room" [a reference to their human-assisting robot which helps those with disabilities].

Technology is changing quickly and the race is on, he said: "Our competitors no longer just make cars. Companies like Google, Apple, and even Facebook are what I think about at night because after all, we didn't start out by making cars either [Toyota made looms originally]."

However, when it comes to cars, Toyota see it as an extension of the phone and computer, a kind of personal assistant on wheels that can anticipate needs through predictive artificial intelligence. In the future, Toyoda said, mobility on demand or mobility as a service will be powered by autonomy supported by vehicle electrification.