Toyota is jumping into the increasingly crowded car-sharing market, and it’s doing it with a flair for innovation that helps explain why it’s the world’s biggest auto seller. The company invented a Bluetooth-enabled device called the Smart Key Box that allows users to unlock and start the engine of a car using just their smartphone.
Here’s how it will work: a vehicle owner who wants to make some money on the side lending their car to other people can install the Smart Key Box on their dashboard, no modification needed. The car-share customer is sent a code via an app to access the box. When the smartphone is brought near the vehicle, the codes are authenticated via Bluetooth — Toyota calls it a “handshake” — similar to regular smart key. The time and period when the user can access the Smart Key Box is set and managed by Toyota, based on the vehicle reservation.
Toyota plans to put this new technology to the test in a limited pilot in San Francisco next year in partnership with a peer-to-peer car-sharing service called Getaround. Last week, Getaround received a $10 million investment from a fund controlled by Toyota, Reuters reports. The fund mostly spends money on AI and robotics, but the investment in Getaround is a sign that Toyota is interested in expanding into car-sharing. Only people who own the new Prius or any model Lexus can participate in the car-sharing pilot.
Toyota is banking on car-sharing growing increasingly popular, especially as urbanites trend away from personal car ownership and toward services like Car2Go and Zip Car. Unfortunately, Toyota is playing catch-up to its competitors. Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, owns Car2Go. General Motors launched its own car-sharing service called Maven, which just recently expanded to Los Angeles. Ford has GoDrive in London, BMW has ReachNow in Seattle, and Tesla plans to launch its own car-sharing network in the near future. Toyota says it also plans to create a new financial product that allows people to use car-sharing to pay off leases charges for their vehicles.