Toyota’s weired e-Palette concept car previews new autonomous vehicle platform

Toyota, the biggest automaker maker in the world, announced an ambitious plan today to tackle mobility and delivery services in the age of autonomous cars. Apparently, it involves weird, see-through self-driving boxes roaming through cities, delivering people, packages, and pizza.

Toyota is calling them “e-Palettes” and describes them as “fully-automated, next generation battery electric vehicle[s] designed to be scalable and customizable for a range of Mobility as a Service businesses.” Think of them as transparent cargo or shipping containers on wheels that grow and shrink in size depending on their specific task.

“Just think how good e-Palette would be at Burning man,” quipped Akio Toyoda, Toyota Motor Company’s bespectacled president, from the stage at CES in Las Vegas today. That about sums it up.

It’s not clear whether Toyota actually plans to build these hilariously weird-looking vehicles, but it has struck partnerships with a handful of major companies to drive home the seriousness of this project. Toyota says it will work with Amazon, DiDi Chuxing, Mazda, Pizza Hut, and Uber. The Japanese auto giant says it hopes to debut its e-Palette project at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

It may be tempting to lump Toyota’s e-Palette vision into other CES-related concepts that sound interesting but have little basis in reality. Indeed, the automaker’s see-through robo-delivery things may never actually hit the streets. Experts predict that autonomous vehicles will be contained within geo-fenced areas for many years to prevent them from coming into contact with human-driven vehicles. If that’s the case, it’s hard to see how Toyota’s mobility concept will have much application outside self-contained environments like college campuses or retirement communities.

But if the broader world eventually opens up to autonomous cars, these types of boxy, customizable, multi-passenger, multi-functioning vehicles could find some place in society. Other companies and startups have begun to explore the concept of modular electric-and-autonomous vehicles. Rinspeed’s Snap vehicle, also on display at CES, is made up of two parts: interchangeable pods that attach to a rolling skateboard-like chassis, which houses data-processing computers and the EV power train. Another startup called Next Future Transportation Inc has been working on self-driving modular vehicles for some time.

Last week, Toyota unveiled the latest version of its autonomous test vehicle. The car, which is being tested in Silicon Valley by the Japanese automaker’s research arm, is a Lexus LS 600hL equipped with powerful LIDAR sensors, radar, camera arrays, and two steering wheels. It also has a new and improved look, with a more seamless integration of the cameras and sensor array into the vehicle’s design thanks to a partnership with the CALTY Design Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is Toyota’s first real foray into autonomous mobility services. The Japanese auto giant has preexisting relationships with Nvidia and Microsoft on its compute and infotainment systems.