SoftBank, Toyota team up on ride-hailing, self-driving cars

Shigeki Tomoyama, executive VP of Toyota, at a news conference on Oct. 4. (Bloomberg pic)

TOKYO: Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp and Toyota Motor Corp are betting on a future when consumers and businesses will order up their transportation needs on demand, forming a new venture that will develop and deploy ride-hailing and self-driving car technologies.

Monet Technologies Corp will initially introduce ride-hailing services for Japanese public agencies and private companies, followed by a rollout of autonomous vehicles in 2020, the two companies said at a joint briefing in Tokyo on Thursday. After Japan, Monet will expand globally, they said.

The tech investor conglomerate and Asia’s biggest carmaker are seeking to catch up in an area where US technology and car companies have taken the lead. It’s the first significant collaboration between SoftBank and Toyota, which have already poured billions of dollars into ride-hailing startups. The Japanese companies are seeking a new avenue to increase their foothold in automated driving and ride-sharing services, which are threatening to disrupt the car and transport markets.

“Toyota doesn’t have the choice to ignore this business,” said Koji Endo, an analyst at SBI Securities. “It has to start the experiment, otherwise somebody else will do it instead.”

SoftBank will own just over 50% of the venture, while Toyota will control the rest. It will be initially capitalized at 2 billion yen (US$17.5 million), and eventually reach 10 billion yen as needed, they said. SoftBank and Toyota said they see the venture providing a variety of services, such as meal-delivery vehicles in which food is prepared on the move, hospital shuttles where on-board medical examinations can be performed, and mobile offices.

“The mobility company is just the first step,” SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son said in an on-stage conversation with Toyota President Akio Toyoda. “There will be a second and third and I hope that the connection will deepen going forward.”

The fledgeling self-driving industry is led by General Motors Co.’s Cruise unit along with Waymo, the autonomous unit of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, while companies such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Tesla Inc. are also pushing deeper into the sector. Toyota and SoftBank have so far separately made investments in such ventures. Monet won’t develop self-driving cars, but will focus on business applications utilizing them.

Son’s Vision Fund is the biggest shareholder in Uber, into which Toyota invested US$500 million in August. The two have also backed Southeast Asia ride-hailing service Grab. While Toyota has been developing its own self-driving technology, SoftBank has taken stakes in GM’s Cruise and Manbang Group, China’s Uber-like truck-rental company.

On Wednesday, GM’s Cruise drew its second major investment in a matter of months, with Honda Motor Co. committing to spend $2.75 billion to back the company and joining forces to bring autonomous vehicles to market. The partnership will strengthen GM’s position as one of the front-runners in the packed race to bring self-driving vehicles to market.

“The auto industry is faced with a sweeping, once-in-a-century shift,’’ Toyoda said.

Son is one of the most influential investors in ride-hailing. Besides Uber and Grab, he has also invested billions into China’s Didi Chuxing and India’s Ola. At the same time, Toyoda is seeking an edge over rivals as carmakers prepare for an uncertain future in which automated driving and the sharing economy threaten to displace the traditional model of vehicle ownership.

Autonomous vehicle-based transportation services is a competency that needs to be built from scratch, said Vivek Vaidya, Asia Pacific vice president for automotive and transport at Frost & Sullivan in Singapore.

“Partnerships are the way to go,” Vaidya said. “Softbank has various strategic investments in e-hailing companies and now they have started expanding in developing new chip specifically for autonomous cars. Toyota may want to benefit from that.”