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Is This Weird, Boxy, Self-Driving Toyota the Future of Shopping?

LAS VEGAS—Imagine a self-driving food truck, but for things other than food. That’s the general idea behind a new concept vehicle Toyota showed off at CES on Monday, awkwardly dubbed the e-Palette.

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The e-Palette is a semitransparent black-and-gray box on wheels, and its modular design means that it could be used as anything, from a mobile showroom for gadgets to a rolling shoe rack to a delivery truck for Amazon packages. (It would come in three sizes to accommodate different types of uses.) And yes, it could also just be used as a food truck or a ride-share vehicle.

In short, it’s the ultimate Uber for X–mobile.

Don’t expect to see these things rolling up to your door anytime soon. A lot has to happen before these types of vehicles would be viable on city streets, the most important of which is widespread acceptance of fully autonomous vehicles. Toyota says it plans to conduct feasibility testing in the “early 2020s,” with perhaps a public debut of sorts at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

It makes sense, though, for Toyota to be working on this kind of stuff. As online shopping continues to erode brick-and-mortar retail, it does seem likely that there will be ever-growing demand for new ways to try things on or test them out before buying. The e-Palette offers one vision for how that might work.

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The company, which is trying to fend off Volkswagen for the title of world’s largest automaker, has a long tradition of innovation, but it hasn’t made a lot of noise in the self-driving realm until recently. (It announced its latest self-driving test vehicle last week.) In a world where people share self-driving vehicles rather than buy their own cars, carmakers are going to have to forge a new role for themselves if they don’t want their products to be commoditized.

To that end, Toyota announced partnerships with Amazon, DiDi, Mazda, Pizza Hut, and Uber, building what it calls the e-Palette Alliance. It also adopted some freshly awful jargon, billing the e-Palette as an example of “Autono-MaaS,” or Automated Mobility as a Service. That’ll definitely catch on.

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