Toyota Exec Says Autonomous Driving Will Kill Mass-Market Cars

Luxury and performance models will survive, he says.

byStephen Edelstein|
Toyota Exec Says Autonomous Driving Will Kill Mass-Market Cars

Self-driving cars and sharing services are expected to have a big impact on the auto industry. But Simon Humphries, who oversees design at Toyota's Advanced R&D and Engineering, is predicting a bigger impact than most people might imagine. He thinks autonomous driving will kill off mass-market cars, the kind his employer is best known for.

"One one side we're going to see this optimized (transport) system, but on the other side you're going to see a pure race car," Humphries said in an interview with Reuters. "There will be an emotional solution, and a practical solution. So maybe the story is that the middle ground is increasingly going to disappear."

That may not sound like the most enticing future for someone working in the car business, but Humphries believes the combination of autonomous driving and electric powertrains will give designers more freedom, because it will eliminate the need for steering wheels, engines, and other traditional parts that currently dictate the shape of cars.

"When you don't have to hold a steering wheel, the world is your oyster," Humphries said.

But so far, Toyota's main vision of the autonomous vehicle of the future takes the form of a utilitarian box on wheels. Unveiled at CES 2018, the e-Palette concept can be configured to carry people or cargo. While it is very practical, the e-Palette makes even a Camry look sexy. Toyota has enlisted several companies to help develop the e-Pallette, and services that could make use of it.

Enthusiasts often think of Toyota's current cars as soulless appliances, but they are still a step up from anonymous autonomous pods. One could argue that, if people no longer drive, cars won't need to have a distinct design or character. But that future isn't particularly pleasant to contemplate. Distinctiveness shouldn't be limited to a handful of high-end luxury and performance cars.