“Peak Car”. The two simple words, used to describe the point in time at which annual global auto sales reach their maximum potential, are both a sign of Henry Ford’s dream fulfilled and an omen for a new world to come. They tease of a time when cars will finally take a back seat in the world’s transportation plans. They hint of a culture where mobility is no longer dictated by owning a car.
Nailing down the year of this tipping point varies by analyst; still, most agree it’s a reality the world will reach sometime in the decade to come. If this revelation surprises anyone, they probably don’t live in the U.S. While car sales in China — already the biggest car market in world since 2010 — continue to grow by roughly ten percent per year, here, in the mecca of car culture, the percentage of 19-year-olds with driver’s licenses dropped to 69.5 percent in 2010, down from 87.3 percent just ten years earlier, according to University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Total miles driven in the U.S. likewise peaked back in 2005 and has steadily declined since. Combined with a recording-breaking average age of vehicles on the road of 11.4 years in 2013, it seems all roads, at least stateside, now lead to the parking lot.
Car makers can read the tire tracks, too. It’s why terms like greener, faster, and smarter pepper today’s press releases and quarterly calls like lisps in a Mike Tyson monologue. To most, they’re sufficient steps for shielding the business of today from the landmines ahead. But a rare few brands are plotting a radically different vision of our society in the decades to come.
Toyota is one such company making bold bets in a wide range of areas — from alternative fueled vehicles and suped-up tricycles Robocop would sell his hex nuts for, to emotion-sensing AI, household “partner” robots, and smart homes — all in hopes anticipating the shifting mobility needs of tomorrow. Statistics are one way to understand how the company’s master plan will make for a better and Pikachu-cute future; then again, the world’s largest automaker is well aware that practice makes perfect, and that’s on display at their global headquarters, known as Toyota City.
Toyota Then and Now
What if you could completely rethink a city’s transportation network using all of the advanced technology available today? Anyone in search of a glimpse of this future can hop a two-hour Shikansen (bullet train) ride from downtown Tokyo to the city of Nagoya. Toyota’s global headquarters and the surrounding town, located in the Aichi prefecture, are roughly an hour’s drive east of Nagoya and home to 420,000.
Modest is one way to describe the headquarters of Japan’s largest company by market cap (particularly in the age of the Googleplex), whose main campus consists of three story office building, a 14-story technical center and a sizable production plant. The ideas being generated here, though, are anything but.
The search for a different way forward is nothing new for the area or Toyota. As recently as the late 1800s, silk was central focus of the region’s economy. Sakichi Toyoda was a mechanical genius who used his skills to found Toyoda Automatic Loom Works in 1926. His innovations increased the productivity of loom designs by nearly twenty fold, but a decline in silk demand soon drew his attention to the emerging automotive industry. In 1933, an automobile department led by his eldest son, Kiichiro, was established and spun off as Toyota Motor Co., Ltd four years later as a runaway success.
Today, Toyota is searching for new forms of reinvention through a variety of city-wide trials. The goal? Cracking the code to some of the world’s greatest problems concerning energy consumption, carbon emissions and transportation. In 2010, the city was chosen by the Japanese government as one of four places in the country that would prove the viability of “next-generation energy and social living systems”. The recognition, along with a desire to put advanced research into practice, led Toyota to implement a cutting-edge low-carbon transportation network that began with fuel-cell powered buses and mixture of greener personal vehicles ranging from plug-in hybrids, EVs and even fuel-cell powered prototypes, as well as the necessary infrastructure to keep them running like smart charging stations and solar powered parking spots. This system was recently expanded to include a so-called “Ha:mo RIDE” (short for Harmonious Mobility) sharing service of ultra-compact
mini fridges with wheels electric vehicles and bicycles.
Members of the Ha:mo RIDE program can use a smartphone app to view how many EVs are parked at any given station and examine their various charge levels. Vehicles can then be reserved remotely, and a special card unlocks and starts the vehicle on arrival. Drivers are charged roughly $2 for the first 10 minutes of driving. Trips can be extended for roughly 20 cents a minute after that point. This advanced sharing system fills a significant gap found throughout most of the world’s major transportation networks today: the realm between purely public and private means of conveyance and serving the “last mile” between major public hubs and local points of interest. So-called Ha:mo NAVI is a companion innovation designed to coordinate a city’s mobility demands. By ingesting and monitoring usage data from across the entire system, the software optimizes the suggested routes and methods of traveling for any citizen’s needs at any given time, balancing the loads across the network in the process.
After seeing Ha:mo in action ourselves, it was obvious that Toyota is on to something. As we were about to learn, though, the company’s visions for mobility don’t stop with creating a better commute. They also extend to daily life at home.
The Robot Revolution
Japan’s fascination with robots is a cliche these days in the Western world. While the stereotype originates largely from cultural exports like Voltron, Gundam and The Transformers, the reality of a robot-filled future in the country is actually closer than you might assume.
Toyota’s interest in robot technology originated with developing automated systems to enhance their production lines. Nine years ago, Toyota made waves by unveiling a series of humanoid robot musicians capable of playing songs on the drums and trumpet at the 2005 World Expo. Two years later, several new models were added to the family, headlined by a violinist. The demonstrations were clearly driven more by promotion than profit. Still, there’s no doubt that the technical innovations born from the manufacturing world and partnering robot projects are influencing the auto maker’s aspirations.
A partner robot in every home could certainly fill the holes in a bottom line left by emptying driveways across the globe and address needs created by an aging society.
During our time in Toyota City, we toured the company’s advanced technology division to learn more about the automaker’s breakthroughs in robot development. Highlights included the so-called Torque Servo robot arm designed to react and respond safely with humans in close proximity and even mirror their physical movements through training. Terminator 2 came to mind while watching the developing engineer gently push an arm possessing the strength of a giant, which in reality proved how far things have come, while demos from a Human Support Robot built specifically to identify and fetch various household items for residents with restricted mobility illustrated just how far there is to go. A so-called autonomous walking assistant robot — which looked like an advanced leg brace — likewise proved the field’s potential to augment the movements for those with reduced mobility as a result of advanced age or disabilities.
A partner robot in every home could certainly fill the holes in a bottom line left by emptying driveways across the globe and address needs created by an aging society — an issue Japan will face sooner than others given the projections that indicate 40 percent of the population will be over 65 by the year 2060. The company’s work in this area is more than just a move to cover bases down the road though. It’s also infusing new ideas into the cars of today and, in some cases, creating new classes of vehicles never seen before.
Beyond Four Wheels
Just as the production of cars launched Toyota’s progress in the field of robotics, advances born of out its technical center are now making their way into vehicles. One example includes a recently announced pre-collision system with pedestrian-avoidance steering assist, which relies on advanced object recognition to detect and prevent accidents and is expected to be introduced into the company’s line of vehicles soon.
More radical examples of the full-circle relationship between the seemingly disparate areas of research were found the form of Toyota’s Winglet personal scooters and the so-called i-Road. The Winglet is designed to follow the footsteps currently occupied by the Segway today on a larger scale, presumably thanks to improvements in portability and price. The electric powered i-Road is also the latest in a growing line of “personal mobility” vehicles Toyota has created over the years; this is the first time one will actually see production. Unlike previous iterations, which were seemingly inspired by the wheelchairs of Professor X., the i-Road seems to take many core principles from motorcycles. The advanced pod on wheels weighs roughly 660 pounds while measuring less than a yard wide and is currently capable of a top speed 28 mph thanks to a pair of two-kilowatt electric motors.
Its Tamagotchi styling alone will never win the hearts of drivers. Five minutes behind the wheel was all we needed, however, to see the joy of driving wasn’t forgotten by the i-Road’s engineers. Anyone who’s driven a traditional car will have no problem controlling it. The cosy interior includes a steering wheel, gas and break pedals. Though it rests on three wheels, the i-Road is self-balancing and relies on Active Lean technology for turning. Technically, only the rear wheel of the vehicle rotates, while the front arms extend or contract — much like the actuating arms of a robot — leaning the i-Road by up to 26.5 degrees in the proper direction. The shifts in balance can cause anxiety about tipping, but it’s all under control. A computer determines the sharpness of a driver’s desired turning angle, factoring in the speed of travel. Our fears dissipated after taking a few curves; soon turning felt fun. The i-Road’s unique approach has an added advantage on uneven road surfaces as well, since the angles of the front wheel can differ while the body stays level. Like the fleet of small EVs being put to use in Toyota City’s Ha:mo system, the i-Road is intended to be used for short commutes around town thanks to a range of around 25 miles in stop-and-go traffic.
Examples like the i-Road proved again what we had seen throughout our time in Toyota City: that not everything about the days before peak car must be forgotten in the transition to a more manageable and sustainable future. Much of Toyota’s work is clearly designed with a deep understanding of our collective dirty secret — mainly, that if progress isn’t made easy and intuitive, it isn’t likely to stick. Toyota’s visions for our future may or may not reflect the way we’re headed, but they do offer excellent food for thought on how we can evolve. More importantly, they prove that truly remarkable technology can change our lives without asking us to change the way we live.