Toyota, SoftBank announce new driverless vehicles joint venture, MONET

Toyota, SoftBank announce new driverless vehicles joint venture, MONET

We’re in the MONET: Two of Japan’s biggest names, SoftBank and Toyota, have announced an autonomous vehicles joint venture.

The companies will team up to develop transport, delivery, and logistics services that rely on self-driving technology, such as hospital shuttles, according to an announcement this morning.

The deal will combine Toyota’s connected vehicle technology with SoftBank’s Internet of Things (IoT) platform.

The new joint venture will be called MONET, short for mobility network. It will provide a range of connected car services, including meal deliveries and shuttle buses, as well as vehicles that offer onboard medical examinations, according to the announcement.

The partners are jointly investing two billion yen ($17.5 million) in the deal, with SoftBank owning just over half of the business.

Toyota has long had ties with SoftBank rival, KDDI, whose shares fell as the partnership was announced.

Race for the prize

The companies envisage a future in which fewer people own or drive their own vehicles and personal transport becomes an on-demand commodity service.

The deal between Japan’s top carmaker and its most influential tech giant – and a serial investor in autonomous vehicles, AI, and robotics – shows that even established players fear being left behind on the road to driverless and connected vehicle technologies.

However, it also reveals that the autonomous future won’t be a race to the finishing line, with one company winning the global market. Partnerships between auto giants and tech companies are increasingly commonplace, with many carmakers now seeing themselves as technology companies first and foremost.

“SoftBank alone and automakers alone can’t do everything,” confirmed Junichi Miyakawa, chief technology officer at SoftBank, who will be CEO of MONET.

“This is a very unusual partnership. But […] we decided to pair up with the hope that this Japan alliance can compete globally.

“We want to work to help people with limited access to transportation.”

SoftBank’s autonomous vehicle unit, SB Drive, has been developing self-driving technology for buses, while the Toyota Research Institute long has been pursuing artificial intelligence and mobility services.

Both companies also have investments in ride-hailing firms such as Uber, Grab, Ola, and Didi Chuxing, but this is the first time they have come together in a new venture.

“We are trying to take traditional car making into new fields,” explained Toyota president Akio Toyoda. “We realised that SoftBank shares the same vision when it comes to the future of cars, so it’s time that we partner together.”

Fleets of platforms

Toyota believes that this future will include convoys of self-driving shuttles and multi-purpose, autonomous platforms that could be used as pay-per-use mobile restaurants or hotels, for example.

It has been developing a service called ‘e-Palette’ based on this concept, with Amazon, Didi, Uber and Pizza Hut early partners in the project. Toyota has said it plans to use the service to transport athletes and guests during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

MONET itself will roll out an autonomous driving service using e-Palette by the second half of the 2020s, the companies said.

SoftBank will provide technology to collect and analyse the associated transport data and ensure that cars are dispatched whenever and wherever they’re needed.

Internet of Business says

Automakers, technology giants, and ride-hailing app providers increasingly share the same future vision of reduced car ownership in cities, with on-demand, autonomous services dominating.

That means new services and revenue opportunities must emerge to fill the gap left by falling traditional sales and leasing.

Earlier this year, SoftBank invested $2.25 billion in GM’s self-driving unit, Cruise. This week, Cruise secured another $2.75 billion from another Japanese auto giant, Honda, with the latter taking a 5.7 stake in the company.

In August, Toyota invested $500 million in frictionless transport provider Uber, in a bid to accelerate the progress of autonomous ride-sharing.

The companies also announced they were extending their technology collaboration with the aim of bringing to market autonomous mobility as a service (‘AutonoMaaS’) at scale.

Technology from Toyota and Uber will be integrated into purpose-built Toyota vehicles, based on its Sienna minivans, deployed on Uber’s ride-sharing network. The companies plan to pilot the scheme in 2021.

Meanwhile two of Europe’s biggest players, Daimler and Renault, announced this week that they may expand their existing cooperation to batteries, self-driving vehicles, and mobility services.

Also this week, VW and Microsoft announced a new cloud deal that promises closer integration between smart homes and smart vehicles.

In July, Daimler, Bosch, and NVIDIA unveiled a driverless taxi partnership. 2018 has also seen multiple announcements from Jaguar Land Rover, Baidu, Ford, Tesla, Waymo, Uber, and Apple, among many others.

Chris Middleton
Chris Middleton is former editor of Internet of Business, and now a key contributor to the title. He specialises in robotics, AI, the IoT, blockchain, and technology strategy. He is also former editor of Computing, Computer Business Review, and Professional Outsourcing, among others, and is a contributing editor to Diginomica, Computing, and Hack & Craft News. Over the years, he has also written for Computer Weekly, The Guardian, The Times, PC World, I-CIO, V3, The Inquirer, and Blockchain News, among many others. He is an acknowledged robotics expert who has appeared on BBC TV and radio, ITN, and Talk Radio, and is probably the only tech journalist in the UK to own a number of humanoid robots, which he hires out to events, exhibitions, universities, and schools. Chris has also chaired conferences on robotics, AI, IoT investment, digital marketing, blockchain, and space technologies, and has spoken at numerous other events.