Toyota cars to be drivers' Friend on social network

Tweeting through the thoroughfares

 Toyota Motor President Akio Toyoda with Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff announcing the alliance in Tokyo. AP

Toyota Motor Corp and Salesforce.com, announced their alliance Monday to launch “Toyota Friend,” a private social network for Toyota owners that works similar to tweets on Twitter.

Salesforce.com Inc will build a social network service that will enable owners to become “friends” with their cars and get friendly, tweet-like reminders for maintenance checks and other notices.

 The deal marks the second tie-up between the world’s biggest automaker and a software company in as many months. Toyota and Microsoft Corp last month announced plans to bring Internet-connected services to Toyota’s cars across the world.

The service would be an extension of Toyota’s network to be based on Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform that would give customers across the world access to Toyota’s digital services such as GPS and multimedia.  The service will be offered first in Japan with Toyota’s first battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid cars due next year, Toyota said.

The companies did not give details of how the technology, such as the content of the talking car’s dialogues, will be managed. But officials said the answers will be automated through sensors in the car.

If your car is up for an inspection, for example, the owner will be notified through ‘Toyota Friend,’ which will in turn automatically link to a dealer to set up an appointment. Toyota is investing ¥442 million ($5.5 million), Microsoft Corp is investing ¥335 million ($4.1 million) and Salesforce.com ¥223 million ($2.8 million) in the project. Many cars are already equipped with navigation and other network-linking capabilities, and can function as a mobile device just like an iPhone or a Blackberry.

Toyota’s service, built on open-source cloud platforms that are the specialty of Salesforce.com, as well as on Microsoft’s platform, will start in Japan in 2012, and will be offered later worldwide, initially with electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, according to Toyota. Such next-generation cars need to be recharged and so drivers may need real-time information, such as the battery level of their cars and locations of charging stations, more than regular gas-engine cars. Toyota President Akio Toyoda, a racing fan, said he always ‘talks’ with his car when he is zipping around on the circuit.  With the popularity of social networking, cars and their makers should become part of that online interaction. “I hope cars can become friends with their users, and customers will see Toyota as a friend,” he said.

Salesforce.com Chief Executive Marc Benioff said social networks can add value to products and companies. It can also help Toyota gain massive information not only about their buyers but about how the car is working or not working, he said.

“I want a relationship with my car in the same way we have a relationship with our friends on social networks,” he said. Toyoda, who has always been interested in telematics, or the use of Internet technology in autos, has been aggressive in forging alliances with new kinds of companies, including one with US luxury electric carmaker Tesla Motors that he announced last year.

Partnerships with dot.com types have been a bright spot in Toyoda’s bumpy career as President. He has faced growing doubts about reliability and transparency because of the massive global recalls that began two years ago, shortly after he took office, and which now affect more than 14 million vehicles. Toyota is also battling parts shortages after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan destroyed key suppliers, hampering production.

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