Home >Companies >Uber CEO plans closer ties with Toyota on autonomous driving

Tokyo: The world’s largest car maker and the world’s biggest ride-hailing company plan to team up on autonomous driving as technological changes sweep through the transportation industry.

On Thursday, Dara Khosrowshahi, chief executive officer of Uber Technologies Inc., posted a photo on Twitter of him and Toyota Motor Corp. president Akio Toyoda, along with executive vice president Shigeki Tomoyama at the automaker’s headquarters. The Uber CEO is smiling and holding a black baseball bat from local hero Ichiro Suzuki, while Toyoda laughs at his side.

“Having fun with Akio-San and Tomoyama-San @ToyotaMotorCorpHQ," he wrote. “Great discussions about growing our #autonomous partnership and lessons 4 me in building a great culture. And yep, those are Ichiro’s bats."

Uber and Toyota have given few details of their collaboration on autonomous technology before, though both have been active in the field separately. Toyota bought a stake in Uber in 2016, without disclosing the size or the reason for the investment.

Khosrowshahi is looking to move past an embarrassing legal battle with Alphabet Inc., which alleged that Uber stole autonomous driving secrets from it. Having settled that case this month for about $245 million, Khosrowshahi’s meeting with Toyoda shows his commitment to continue developing the technology with partners. For Toyota, closer ties could help it keep up with rivals like Nissan Motor Co., which is working on its own autonomous solution.

“We have a very budding partnership with Toyota," Khosrowshahi told investors at an event on Tuesday. “We have to make sure we have access to leading autonomous technology. And that means having access to it in a timely manner. I do believe we can develop our own autonomous technology that we’re doing, and at the same time partner with other players in autonomous technology."

During his Japan trip, Khosrowshahi also made it clear the ride-hailing company isn’t scaling back its ambitions in certain Asian markets, despite speculation of a retreat. During his first stop on the Asia tour, he said he’s willing to forge partnerships with Japanese taxi companies in order to succeed, even though Uber has less 1% market share and only offers limited services there.

“It’s clear to me that we need to come in with partnership in mind," he said.

It’s a clear sign yet that ride-hailing giant will redouble efforts to take a piece of Japan’s $16 billion taxi market, even amid signs of pressure from its biggest shareholder, SoftBank Group Corp., to focus on core markets. Amid heavy operating losses, Uber has retreated from some markets, including China and Russia. It’s also said to be considering a sale of its Southeast Asian business. After Japan, Khosrowshahi is visiting India, where Uber is competing against local ride-hailing startup Ola.

Uber still faces an uphill battle in Japan. Local rivals such as Nihon Kotsu Co., Tokyo’s largest cab company, have already released popular taxi-hailing apps. Uber’s Chinese rival Didi Chuxing last year began partnership talks with taxi operator Daiichi Koutsu Sangyo Co., with the discussions facilitated by SoftBank, a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg in October. Uber is also said to be in talks for a venture with Daiichi Koutsu.

And on Tuesday, just an hour before Khosrowshahi spoke, Sony Corp. unveiled an alliance with six taxi operators in Japan, which have a combined fleet of more than 10,000 cabs in the greater Tokyo area. Sony is aiming to develop a ride-hailing app powered by artificial intelligence and also provide payment services.

Toyota’s investment in Uber in 2016 triggered a blowback from Japan’s powerful taxi driver association, a big customer for the automaker. The chairman of the group at the time said that “Toyota is sending supplies to our enemy." Toyota later explained that the agreement with Uber excluded Japan and therefore wasn’t a direct threat.

The company is grappling with how to embrace autonomous driving without destroying the market for individual car owners. The carmaker last month showcased a robo-van called e-Palette at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, and is planning trial runs at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The van can carry people like a bus, cargo like a truck—or can be customized into things like mobile hotel rooms or research labs. Bloomberg

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