Toyota and Softbank join hands to produce MAAS at scale

Son and Toyoda. (c) Bertel Schmitt

Now that the hype cycle is beyond peak autonomous, and is trundling towards the trough of disillusionment, now that venture capitalists talk up the virtues of lower-hanging fruits, such as scooters and marijuana, grown-up automakers and tech companies can tackle the topic at scale. Today in Tokyo, two of Japan’s largest companies, Toyota and Softbank, announced a tie-up to perform mobility services in industrial-size fashion. With a new joint venture, they will provide the same mobility as a service that originally was said to disrupt them and leave them behind in smoldering ruins.  

Such alliances are a thing right now: A few days earlier, Honda threw its lot together with GM (and not with Google) and the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance announced even tighter ties with Daimler to jointly produce batteries, self-driving vehicles and mobility services. In fact, the web of joint ventures and alliances between car companies and mobility startups is getting so complex that a favorite pastime of journalists waiting for the start of today’s press event at the Palace Hotel near Japan’s Emperor palace was to draw up lines connecting names in boxes. The drawings did not come close to the reality projected at the screens an hour later.

Toyota has partnerships with Uber, Grab, Didi, and many more, while promiscuous Softbank partners with just about anybody including GM’s Cruise. Actually, this is how the happy couple found each other. “Whenever we partnered with a mobility company, Softbank turned out to be the largest shareholder backing them up,” Toyota’s EVP Shigeki Tomoyama told reporters today. By now, Toyota has so many mobility partnerships that it needs one company to oversee them all, and that one company is Softbank.

Toyota’s and Softbank’s dream customer literally is the “Grandma with a walker” derided by Elon Musk, and not the hip young people of lore who allegedly will eschew cars to get around by Uber and Bird scooters alone. “One in four people in Japan are 65 and older, and in 20 years, it will be one in three,”  said Softbank’s CTO Junichi Miyakawa. “More and more older people are returning their driver’s licenses while 8.2 million people already suffer from limited access to shopping and transportation.” Buses are getting too expensive to run in many depopulating towns all over Japan, so Soh and Toyoda are betting it will make more sense to send a pod to take grandma to the supermarket, or even send the supermarket home to grandma, the ultimate convenience store.

Toyoda and Softbank are starting a new company called “Monet,” probably taking inspiration from “mobility” and “network,” and not from the French painter. The company will start with around 30 people fielded by both Softbank and Toyota. Softbank holds a rather-thin majority of 0.25%,  and it provides the CEO, Softbank’s Junichi Miyakawa.

What the company will exactly do remains  a bit cloudy. According to a joint press release, “the objective of MONET is to help realize a safer and more comfortable mobility society by combining SoftBank’s corporate philosophy, “Information Revolution – Happiness for everyone,” with Toyota’s vision of “Mobility for All,” and that pretty much covers what we know so far.

However, we were told what it won’t do. “Monet is not the company that will develop autonomous vehicles,” said Tomoyama. Those will be built by Toyota once they are ready. Monet might provide the technology platform for the Ubers, Grabs etc wherever they operate in the world, and in markets not covered by them, Monet might runs its own.  The whole thing runs under the somewhat tortured “autono-MAAS” moniker, as in autonomous mobility as a service. Pouring water over hopes of a widespread rollout of autonomous vehicles any day now, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son predicted that for quite some while, autonomous vehicles will cost more than regular cars, so much more that we’ll probably rent before we buy.