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Business deals

Toyota looks to SoftBank's Son as a catalyst for innovation

Automaker fights to remain on center stage as tech companies shine

TOKYO - - When Toyota Motor approached SoftBank Group about a potential tie-up earlier this year, Aichi Prefecture-based President Akio Toyoda offered to travel to Tokyo to meet the tech company's leader Masayoshi Son.

"Twice I thought to myself, 'Really?'" Son told reporters on Thursday reflecting on the behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Initial talks took place through younger staff members from both companies around April. But Toyoda, the scion of the Toyota group and head of Japan's number one company, was willing to come to meet the maverick entrepreneur. 

After direct talks between the two leaders in August and September, the deal was sealed.

Toyota's decision to partner with SoftBank in mobility services was driven by a fear that its position as one the world's leading automakers could rapidly come undone in an industry undergoing rapid technological transformation.

The pair's relationship began two decades ago when Son proposed to Toyoda -- a section chief in charge of improving Toyota's sales operations at the time -- that he should adopt an online sales system for cars. But Toyoda rejected the idea because he was pursuing another system.

"It was not a bad experience, but I was disappointed," Son reflected. Two decades later, however, Toyoda is the one asking Son to join hands. The companies will launch a joint venture for mobility services called Monet Technologies by the end of next year.

SoftBank's Son, right, and Toyota's Toyoda have a history going back two decades.   © Reuters

Toyota, which makes 10 million autos worldwide each year, has vowed to transition from an automaker to a mobility services provider. It decided to invest $1 billion in Southeast Asian ride-hailing operator Grab in June and $500 million in Uber Technologies in August.

But the top shareholder in Grab and Uber -- as well as China's Didi Chuxing and India's Ola -- is SoftBank. Revenue from fares among the four companies will reach about $88 billion this year, while Son gains access to enormous amounts of consumer data.

To service providers like Didi and Ola, located in markets where Toyota's share is low, "we were just another company that was not high on their list of potential collaborators," said an executive at the automaker.

The "mobility as a service" market is expected to grow into a $1.5 trillion industry in China, Europe and the U.S. Once that technology is nursed into a full-fledged commercial operation, Toyota will eventually be forced to decide whether SoftBank is a partner or competitor.

In May, before the two chiefs met, Toyota opened a meeting with labor and management at its headquarters. With SoftBank in mind, one executive argued that Toyota needed to reform its thinking: "We are in an era where we could be swallowed whole as unprecedented competition emerges."

The speed with which technology companies are tackling mobility services poses a threat to Toyota. Waymo, the Google affiliate leading its development of fully autonomous driving, plans to roll out transportation services with self-driving cars in the U.S. as early as within a year. Chinese search engine Baidu's Apollo autonomous driving platform now boasts over 100 corporate members worldwide.

Toyota also plans to commercialize its e-Palette autonomous driving platform for such uses as mobility, deliveries and retailing in the mid-2020s. But the automaker is having trouble managing the switch to mobility services while maintaining existing operations.

"Even if you propose something new, each issue must be examined, and ultimately nothing is decided upon," said the executive of one venture that has partnered with Toyota. Those within the company say that while the automaker is refusing to compromise on safety, reliability and fairness, it is also afraid to break old rules. 

Toyoda has repeatedly told employees that the company must revamp its operations now or die. He believes that Toyota is too reliant on past success and that it may not exist in five or 10 years should business continue as usual.

The tie-up with SoftBank was therefore meant "to provide the company with an intense kick from outside the auto industry" as well, according to a Toyota executive.

Toyota has strengthened traditional operations the past two years by turning Daihatsu Motor into a wholly owned subsidiary, entering into a comprehensive partnership with Suzuki Motor and forming a capital tie-up with Mazda Motor. The deals were aimed at bringing in an outside perspective to radically overhaul its operations, an inevitable task.

The partnership between Japan's most- and second-most-valuable companies -- Toyota and SoftBank, respectively -- now signals the automaker's resolve to break into new fields.

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