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Toyota expands self-driving alliance ahead of Google's Waymo

Automaker opens up core system to others

Toyota unveils the TRI-P4 automated driving test vehicle in Las Vegas on Jan. 7. (Photo by Tomoki Mera)
Toyota unveils the TRI-P4 automated driving test vehicle in Las Vegas on Jan. 7. (Photo by Tomoki Mera)

LAS VEGAS, U.S. -- Toyota Motor's move to sell its automated driving system to other companies reflects its pressing desire to set de facto industry standards in a showdown with Google-affiliated rival Waymo.

Toyota would offer the industry its Guardian driver assist system, which is still under development, the automaker announced at the CES trade show here Monday. It is an unusual step to open up unfinished core technologies.

"We have a moral obligation to apply automated vehicle technology to save as many lives possible, as soon as possible," Gill Pratt, CEO of the Japanese automaker's Silicon Valley artificial intelligence research unit, the Toyota Research Institute, said as he announced the plan.

Built as an automated safety system, Guardian anticipates and identifies potential hazards using sensors and other inputs, and directs a corrective response in a vehicle operated by a human or by an autonomous driving system provided by Toyota or another company.

Toyota has been building alliances in mobility services, establishing a joint venture with Japan's SoftBank Group and investing in Uber Technologies, whose top shareholder is SoftBank.

Waymo is also cultivating partnerships, working with the European-American Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to procure vehicles. The American company, a former Google project spun off as a separate subsidiary under parent Alphabet, launched the Waymo One automated ride service in the U.S. in December. Available so far only in parts of the state of Arizona, the service lets the user set destinations on the mobile app and hop on.

Like Toyota, Waymo aims to become a provider of its self-driving platform to other companies, as Google is with the Android operating system for smartphones.

In fact, the disruption of the mobile phone market brought on by operating system-based smartphones resembles the drastic changes facing the auto industry today.

There were more than 10 handset makers in the early 2000s in Japan, but the number dropped to just a third by 2018. The popularity of Apple's iPhones has played a role, but many manufacturers languished due to the difficulty of distinguishing their products from others, because all were powered by common operating systems.

In services like autonomous taxis, harvesting consumer data is key to maintaining competitiveness. If technology platform providers become the sole contact points with consumers, vehicle manufacturers could be reduced to mere suppliers.

To remain relevant in this fierce race, automakers are banding together to promote their technologies and not surrender control to platform providers. General Motors, which plans to start its own autonomous ride service this year, will collaborate with Honda Motor on vehicle development.

At last year's CES, the e-Palette autonomous vehicle that Toyota announced with Amazon.com and other partners for use in rides, delivery and portable modular stores was the symbol of the automaker's foray into mobility services. Just one year later, many others, including auto parts makers, are showcasing their versions here.

If Waymo sells its autonomous system to other companies and thus lowers barriers to entry for related businesses, autonomous driving technology could quickly become a commodity.

German auto parts maker Schaeffler, which has brought an automated compact bus to the CES, is looking to compete with its own current clients in self-driving technology, according to Deputy CEO Peter Gutzmer.

U.S. startups Drive.ai and Zoox are also among the diverse contenders in the arena. Both companies have carried out many test drives with automated vehicles. The former is developing an autonomous car ride service, and the latter autonomous taxis.

Toyota was the de facto standard-setter for hybrid vehicles thanks to the success of its Prius. But self-driving is a totally different game, with special infrastructure and new rules required for it to take root as numerous competitors vie for market share.

Nikkei staff writer Kentaro Toda in Tokyo contributed to this article.

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