- Toyota believes the world needs a self-driving trailer robot that follows you through the store and then all the way home.
- While a wheeled model is the most logical, this patent suggests the autonomous robot could also be a scooter, a drone, or even a Jet Ski.
- Loading arms for items and tools people borrow could also be part of this workhorse.
Here's the idea: you drive to your local home improvement store and end up buying more than you can fit in your truck (in this scenario, let's say it's a Toyota Tundra). But instead of renting a trailer or paying the store to deliver your items, you just call up an autonomous "workhorse" vehicle, put all your stuff inside, and tell it to follow you home. Once you've unloaded everything, maybe with the help of some robot arms, you do whatever the 21st-century version of slapping a horse on the rump is, and the autonomous vehicle heads back to the store.
That's the basic gist of a newly published patent application from Toyota that describes a "Home Improvement Store Autonomous Workhorse." As with many patents, this one offers a lot of wiggle room to cover potential future applications. Toyota says the AV could be powered by a number of energy sources—batteries, fuel cells, fossil fuels—and it might not even be a wheeled vehicle. "The main body [of the AV] may resemble an automobile such as a car, a truck, a scooter, a boat, a Jet Ski, an aircraft, a golf cart, or the like," the patent says.
Toyota engineers have also imagined how shoppers at a Home Depot or a Lowe's might use this AV assistant, saying that it could follow shoppers as they move through the store, tracing their movement as they walk. Once a shopper decides what to purchase, loading actuators (i.e., robot arms) can then "facilitate movement of the object or objects onto the platform." The AV platform could even include a payment terminal, carry borrowable tools like "an air compressor, a dolly, [or] a nail gun," and be shared between stores, Toyota says.
Toyota declined to comment on this particular patent application, but we are fully aware that just because a company patents a technology is no guarantee that such a thing will ever see the light of day. The automaker did point Car and Driver to a December 2019 announcement that it would license some of its massive bank of intellectual property. Called Toyota IP Solutions, the program offers companies the option to license some of the research work Toyota has done in four specific fields: Omnidirectional Structural Color, Bio-Active Material, Nano-Material Synthesis, and Electronics Thermal Management. Quirky home improvement store AVs are not included.