MoNet: Can Toyota and SoftBank reset the timer?

Two Japanese giants, Toyota and SoftBank have partnered up to recreate mobility. Monet, a portmanteau of Mobility Network is the newly formed, joint enterprise of the Japanese conglomerates. As the press statements on their respective websites explain, by combining SoftBank’s corporate philosophy (“Information Revolution and Happiness for Everyone”) with Toyota’s vision of Mobility for All, Monet will help realise a safer and more comfortable mobility society by offering . In a world that sees Waymo launching its robotaxi service at any minute, Monet has chosen to walk a different path. MONET plans to roll out just-in-time vehicle dispatch services for local public agencies and private companies throughout Japan. These services, which will include on-demand transportation will not be launched before 2025. Can this seemingly “delayed response” be what the autonomous transportation industry needs now?

A realistic timeline

The first thing one would notice is the realistic timeline that the new entity has set. According to the press statement, Monet’s autonomous e-Palette fleet will not start serving the public before the second half of the next decade.

The lax timeframe stands in stark contrast to an industry that has been overwhelmingly daring with regards to its targets. The belief that autonomy is just round the corner has been encouraged by bold statements from some of the most established players in the market: Elon Musk, for example, had promised an autonomous, coast-to-coast drive from LA to New York on a Tesla by the end of 2017. Needless to say, this has not happened yet, and there are no reports of it becoming a reality by the end of this year either.

As it turns out, though, the key to unlock the autonomous market may not be early deployment, but rather, flawless execution. The public seems increasingly sensitive to any autonomous crashes, a phenomenon potentially exacerbated by the increased media coverage such accidents receive. A 2017 poll by AAA revealed that 63 percent of Americans would be too afraid to ride in a self-driving car. Only a year and a handful of autonomous crashes later, the figure rose by 10 percentage points to a staggering 73 percent, as the 2018 poll by AAA revealed. Expectedly, a widely-circulated Uber car crash which led to the death of a jaywalker in Tempe, AZ in 2018, could be the one to blame for the increased wariness among the public.

In choosing not to launch its autonomous fleet until the latter half of the next decade, Monet manages to achieve two things.

Test, Test, and Test Again!

Firstly, the relatively late deployment of the fleet will allow further testing and thus minimisation of any errors that could taint the reputation of this new enterprise. As Uber has found out in the hardest way possible, it is almost impossible to shake off the bad reputation that accompanies an autonomous accident, especially in a market that is currently populated by just a handful of companies conducting real-life testing of their self-driving vehicles.

Apart from the extended testing period that the late deployment will afford Monet, there is also the additional advantage of learning from its competitors’ mistakes, all while retaining its spotless record. In the short time that has lapsed since AV companies started real-life, on-road testing, we have learned that Tesla’s camera-based system struggles with objects that are not moving (such as fire engines parked on the motorway) and Waymo’s vehicles are not aggressive enough to merge onto the freeway, for example. The amount and detail of such information will naturally increase over the next few years and Monet will be able to capitalise on it without receiving its share of negative press for any similar blunders.

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Slow Down to Move Fast

Secondly, the relatively late start date may have a cooling effect on the entire industry. If Monet, the offspring of -arguably- the most successful technology startup and one of the most successful automotive manufacturers globally has chosen to wait, then this could encourage other manufacturers to reconsider the deployment timeline of their autonomous transportation services.

Avoiding rushed deployments, which could lead to an increase in the accidents involving autonomous vehicles, is essential. By now, it has become obvious that self-driving vehicles are often the ones getting the short end of the stick, regardless of whether they are actually at fault: a quick Google search on “Apple autonomous” would return news reports of a crash that involved one of Apple’s self-driving tester cars. Interestingly, Apple’s vehicle was rear-ended by a distracted driver and was not at fault: yet, by reading the headlines, one would be encouraged to assume the autonomous vehicle was to blame. This style of reporting, encouraged by the “clickbait” mentality of online media, makes it imperative that autonomous vehicles perform flawlessly when they start moving people around - they not only need to avoid causing any accidents, but also need to potentially avoid being involved in any accidents by compensating for the inattentiveness of other drivers.

A double benefit?

By slowing things down, Toyota and SoftBank have potentially managed to benefit both their new, joint venture, as well as the industry as a whole. The future of cities includes on-demand, autonomous transportation. For this to be embraced by the public and thus, drive private car ownership (and single occupancy) levels down, the public need to feel confident riding an autonomous vehicle. Monet is poised to become a key player in the autonomous transportation race - by taking time, it will increase its chances of executing this operation flawlessly and hopefully, it will manage to teach its competitors a valuable lesson: that this is not a race against time, but rather, a race against errors.


Photo Credit: Toyota Newsroom