Just when the brick-and-mortar business world thought it was getting a handle on the internet problem, another wrinkle has been added. But this one isn't coming from a high-flying tech company; it's coming from an old automaker known for boring-but-reliable transportation, Toyota Motor Company (NYSE:TM). And if the automaker has its way, the use of real estate as we know it will be upended.
How a box on wheels could change the world
At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Toyota unveiled its e-Palette concept vehicle. "Vehicle" could be a generous term for this thing, though. The e-Palette is essentially a box on eight wheels. This rolling rectangle would be battery-powered and completely self-driven, with no steering wheel, pedals, or any other means of operation reminiscent of today's vehicles.
The e-Palette vehicle could be used for many things. It could deliver packages and provide ride-sharing, of course, but it could also be a mobile hotel room or restaurant, or a moving retail store or showroom that provides an on-demand retail experience. One of Toyota's promotional videos shows an e-Palette vehicle bringing a shoe store right to someone who's ready to try on and buy footwear.
To add weight to this crazy-sounding idea, Toyota also announced a group of service partners in its development of e-Palette. Dubbed the "e-Palette Alliance," the team includes Uber and its Chinese competitor DiDi Chuxing, Mazda, Yum! Brands' Pizza Hut, and Amazon.
The plan is to build the vehicle in three different lengths. But Toyota wants additional input from its partners on this ambitious project. The automaker realizes it needs help to make the customizable multi-use vehicle a reality. If it works, everything from transportation, logistics, and retail to commercial real estate in general could get disrupted.
Toyota's angle of attack
It isn't just the e-Palette. At the heart of Toyota's plans is a transformation into a data and mobility company, a provider of mobility as a service.
Toyota President Akio Toyoda had this to say about his vision during a speech at CES 2018:
You may not be aware that Toyota actually began as a company that built weaving looms, not cars, and it was my grandfather Kiichiro Toyoda that decided to do what many thought impossible at the time, to go from building looms to building cars. I'm the third-generation Toyoda to run this company. And you've probably heard the saying that the third generation knows no hardship, or the third generation ruins everything. Well, hopefully this will not happen! It's my goal to transition Toyota from an automobile company to a mobility company, and the possibilities of what we can build, in my mind, are endless.
The e-Palette is thus the first step in this bigger vision of Toyota as a technology company. The vehicle would be connected to a Toyota data center as the company aims to provide an ecosystem for mobility that includes a suite of services for vehicles.
This means that, if successful, Toyota could be at the forefront of increasing the disruption that has been plaguing the world of retail and commercial real estate the last few years. Where the internet introduced transparent pricing and convenience, the automaker could seal the deal by enabling the mobility of virtually everything. "Today, you have to travel to the store. In the future, with e-Palette, the store will come to you!" Toyoda said at CES.
The e-Palette and a more mobile future could be closer than you think. Toyota has some work to do on battery power first, but it says that its new vehicle will be ready for feasibility tests starting in 2020.
Brick-and-mortar retailers and other businesses that are not online-based take note: If you thought the internet onslaught was going to ease up, this is proof the pace of change is nowhere near slowing.
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Nicholas Rossolillo has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.