Toyota launches robot taxi

And unsurprisingly, it’s a bZ4X, the only electric vehicle in the range. This SUV has a Level 4 PonyPilot+ autonomous system, including solid-state lidar, cameras and millimeter radars. Illuminated signs alert pedestrians and other users at all times about what the vehicle is doing.

This 7th generation system is provided by Pony.ai, a Chinese-American company founded in 2016 in Silicon Valley. To date, it has covered 21 million kilometers in autonomous mode, including more than one million without an operator on board and 200,000 rides. In China, Pony.ai obtained licenses to operate a robotaxi service in cities such as Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou. And it collaborates with other manufacturers such as SAIC and Geely.

But it was Toyota that surpassed everyone by signing an agreement with it, with an envelope of 139 million dollars. It must be said that the two parties have been collaborating since 2019. Lexus RX 450h and Toyota Sienna were used in China for testing. And in its fleet, Pony.ai already has 200 Lexus and Toyota vehicles. The agreement signed last August provides for the mass deployment of robot taxis. It’s a pretty good deal for Toyota, which, like other Japanese manufacturers, suffers in China from competition from local manufacturers.

It’s already a precedent with Uber and Lyft

In the field of autonomous cars, the Japanese giant is not its first attempt.

In 2018, he wrote a $500 million check to Uber. It was at a time when everything seemed to be smiling for the world leader in VTC, which promised to quickly deploy driverless cars. Additionally, the two companies collaborated on the e-Palette autonomous transportation project, unveiled to great fanfare that year at CES in Las Vegas. The following year, Toyota added more than 600 million before its partner’s IPO.

But Uber lost all credibility when one of its cars killed a woman crossing the border in November 2019. Its autonomous business has since been taken over by Aurora, a start-up led by a former Google employee. And the giant VTC today depends, in the United States, on other players like Waymo and Motional for autonomous shopping or meal delivery.

In 2021, Toyota also spent US$550 million on Lyft, Uber’s big rival, to recover its autonomous vehicle division and transfer it to its Woven by Toyota subsidiary.

Teammate system and internal software

Photo credit – Toyota

This structure is the group’s idea box. It is at Woven that the Japanese manufacturer’s major projects are being prepared, such as the implementation of its own operating system (Arene, scheduled from 2025) and autonomous driving.

In this last area, Toyota had the opportunity to present Lexus-based prototypes, for the first time in 2013 (well before Tesla launched Autopilot) at CES in Las Vegas, then a second time in 2019. I also had the opportunity to embark on this vehicle, an LS500h, during his visit to Europe, at Toyota’s headquarters near Brussels airport. Like many manufacturers, the Japanese giant has been working on driving automation since the 1990s. But in Japan, it lost its education to Honda, which launched level 3 autonomy before it (and in a small series of the Legend).

Toyota’s choice is to offer a companion (Teammate), who becomes one with the vehicle, but gives the driver the feeling that he is the one who remains in control. The range has nothing to envy from an autopilot, especially in the most advanced version that equips the Mirai with hydrogen. Whether in connectivity, data exchange and updates.

The autonomous bus deployed in a laboratory city

Toyota launches robot taxi - The autonomous bus deployed in a laboratory city

Toyota electronic palettePhoto credit – Toyota

Returning to the e-Palette bus, Toyota initially envisioned an ecosystem combining Amazon, DiDi (the equivalent of Uber in China), Mazda, Pizza Hut and Uber.

This is no longer the plan, because the manufacturer implemented buses at the Tokyo Olympic Games to transport athletes, in the summer of 2021. And they were adapted to transport people with disabilities. One of them hit a visually impaired judoka, fortunately not seriously. An incident from which Toyota would have escaped, mainly because the operators were on board at the time of the collision. But the Japanese giant will continue.

It will use its buses to transport residents of Woven City, a laboratory city being developed at the foot of Mount Fuji. And for those who still doubt the group’s capabilities, an autonomous bus transported visitors to the Nagoya World Expo in 2005.

A lunar rover in preparation

Toyota launches robot taxi - A lunar rover in preparation

Toyota Lunar RoverPhoto credit – Toyota

Toyota is also collaborating with the Japanese space agency, JAXA, to develop a lunar rover (Lunar Cruiser).

Developed in partnership with Mitsubshi Heavy, as well as Bridgestone for airless tires, this machine is expected to be launched in 2029. It will be capable of traveling with two astronauts on board, but also without a crew for missions to the Moon.

The objective is to test technologies that can be adapted to land vehicles. A model of this future vehicle was presented at the Tokyo Motor Show, as well as an all-terrain vehicle that could also explore the moon’s craters. Not bad for an industrialist who started in the automotive industry 88 years ago and who to date has sold 300 million vehicles on the face of the Earth.

In short

In China, the Japanese manufacturer has joined forces with start-up Pony.ai and GAC to deploy autonomous taxis on a large scale. Their first joint vehicle has just been presented in this country.

Laurent Meillaud

Leave a Comment