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Toyota and Grab unite to form Southeast Asian powerhouse

Billion-dollar investment to span finance and insurance as well as ride-hailing

The pickup and drop-off point for the online ride-hailing service Grab at the Manggarai train station in Jakarta.   © Reuters

NAGOYA/SINGAPORE -- Toyota Motor's $1 billion investment in Singaporean ride-hailing company Grab fully establishes an alliance between two power players in Southeast Asia's old and new economies.

Toyota has backed other ride-hailing startups around the world, such as Uber Technologies in the U.S. and China's Didi Chuxing. But the deal with Grab, announced Wednesday by both companies, is the biggest infusion in the sector yet by the Japanese automaker -- or by any traditional car manufacturer, for that matter.

The size of Toyota's bet illustrates the import placed on Southeast Asia, home to more than 600 million people. The company enjoys large shares across key auto markets in the region, with the reach hovering around 30% in Thailand and Indonesia.

Toyota and Grab started drawing closer to each other last summer when the startup installed Toyota's data-recording devices in 100 rental cars. The pair employed the data in connected vehicles and other services.

Grab, which operates in more than 200 cities in eight countries, dominated the headlines earlier this year by taking over Uber's business in Southeast Asia. Sensing a can't-miss opportunity to leverage Grab's expanded data-gathering footprint, Toyota has committed to the billion-dollar acquisition, which allows the company to install a director and an executive officer for the first time in a ride-hailing company.  

Toyota plans to develop data-driven financial services in Southeast Asia through the partnership. Insurance policies based on driving history would be an option, as well as financing for contracted drivers.

Many in Southeast Asia have no access to bank accounts or other conventional financial services. Grab is starting to fill the void by branching out to financial businesses, such as the mobile wallet GrabPay, by targeting its existing customer base among drivers and subscribed riders.

Though Grab also counts Honda Motor and SoftBank Group among its investors, expectations are running high for the Toyota tie-up thanks to the automaker's experience in connected cars, together with the prospect of jointly developing financial as well as maintenance services.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda has vowed to transform the automaker into a "mobility company." To accomplish that, Toyota will provide what it calls "mobility-as-a-service" platforms. Such services will become a $1.5 trillion market in the U.S., Europe and China alone by 2030, estimates PwC Consulting.

Data will be key in dominating that market. Customer data can be employed not just in ride-hailing, but also in e-commerce and door-to-door food deliveries. Even Toyota, a leading automaker that sells more than 10 million vehicles annually worldwide, knows it has to adapt to guarantee survival in the new landscape.

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