Amazon and Uber, surprisingly, are happy to be working with each other. Normally they’re competitors (both have food-delivery services, for instance), but here their needs are aligned: Both want an autonomous, electric vehicle to move things around. Toyota has also promised to keep the e-Palette “open.” That means Uber should, in theory, be able to plug its own autonomous-driving software into the MSPF and keep a crucial edge over its ride-hailing rivals. “That was a big deal for them,” Merckling said.
At the moment, Toyota is planning to build the e-Palette in three sizes: small, medium and large. They’re all the same width and height — only the length varies between vehicles. Merckling stressed, though, that this could change in the future. In fact, almost everything about the project could change as Toyota consults further with the e-Palette alliance. The company isn’t sure, for instance, what its final business model will be. It could sell the pods to companies or have a fleet that businesses are able to dynamically hire, customize and then return throughout the day. “Right now we’re open to everything,” Merckling said.
There are challenges ahead. EV batteries, for instance, need to improve or the fleet will struggle to keep up with demand. Citizens and companies will request them — but all the pods will be stuck at chargers or unable to reach their final destination. To solve the problem, Toyota is working on flatter, higher-density “prismatic” batteries with Panasonic. “Further evolution, in terms of performance, price and safety, and the securing of stable supply capacity, are pressing issues,” Toyoda said when the pair announced their partnership last month.