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Toyota's Smart Key Box Could Streamline Car-Sharing Services in Urban Cities

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【Summary】Not to get left behind in the transition, Toyota also wants to enter the car-sharing market. The company plans to do this with help from its “mobility services platform.” One of the products from this menu of auto-tech services includes the Smart Key Box.

Original Michael Cheng    Nov 17, 2016 11:05 PM PT

The private car ownership model is being shaken up by convenient ridesharing and car-sharing programs. Such services are very popular in congested cities, where owning a vehicle comes with costly upkeep, including rent for parking garages or expensive parking fees. In the past few years, car manufacturers, like Daimler through Car2Go and BMW through ReachNow, have shown interest in the latter option (car-sharing).

Not to get left behind in the transition, Toyota also wants to enter the car-sharing market. The company plans to do this with help from its "mobility services platform." One of the products from this menu of auto-tech services includes the Smart Key Box. In a nutshell, the device is designed to allow car owners to make a (digital) duplicate key for other people to use.

"We don't consider these new services to be negative for us," said Shigeki Tomoyama, head of Toyota's Connected Car company, during an interview with Reuters. "While we're a company that makes and sells cars, at the same time we're a developer of mobility services."

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How Does It Work?

At first glance, the Smart Key Box looks like a slim hard drive. It can be installed on the car's dashboard without heavy modification. This out-of-the-box feature could make it very attractive for individuals who want to dive right into car-sharing programs with minimal effort. When a car-sharing customer wants to use the vehicle, the individual is provided with a code through a mobile app, which is needed to communicate with the pod.

Next, the user approaches the vehicle to authenticate the code via Bluetooth. If done correctly, the box should acknowledge that the customer's phone is holding a valid code (like authentication for traditional smart keys). After confirmation, the user can use the vehicle for a set period of time, as determined by Toyota (since, as you're about to find out, it plans to use this technology on its own car-sharing program).  

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Getaround Car-Sharing Program

To test the unit's viability in car-sharing applications, the company will conduct a series of tests in San Francisco, California, early next year. The pilot program will be facilitated by Getaround, a peer-to-peer (P2P) car-sharing network. In October, Toyota funded the startup with $10 million, through Mirai Creation Investment Limited Partnership, the establishment's investment fund that focuses on cutting-edge technology, such as hydrogen, AI and robotics. The $111.6 million fund was started by SPARKX Group in November 2015, which includes Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC) as a leading investor.

For now, only new Prius cars and all Lexus models participating in Getaround's car-sharing services are compatible with the Smart Key Box. Toyota will likely expand compatibility with other vehicles in the future. In addition to the key-sharing device, the company is currently in the process of launching a financial product that uses earnings from car-sharing to cover lease payments for new vehicles.

"If increased vehicle usage increases the rate at which cars are replaced, this could increase car sales ... and if more ride-hailing companies use cars from our fleets, then our customers will increase," explained Tomoyama.

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