Beyond Hot Air: Driving Toyota's Hydrogen Car and Future Technology in Japan

Toyota pulls out all the stops to show us what it's got

November 01, 2013
Do you ever wonder how Blackberry once dominated the smartphone industry six years ago and is now in the verge of going under? It'd be easy to blame the iPhone or Android, but that’s sort of like saying that the pig that made its house out of sticks should sue the Big Bad Wolf for his house’s apparent lack of structural integrity. Maybe assault, however. A huffy carnivore can only do so much to force an insurance claim. At some point, the pig should have learned how to build a better house. Toyota, in the long run, doesn't want to become the pig the way that Blackberry did. It doesn't want to let an industry define what it is and strictly abide by those rules. Blackberry defined itself as a work-friendly, email-ready phone. Apple defined its product as a multimedia communications solution, an ever-changing computer that fits in your pocket in your ever-changing life.
Now Japan's largest automaker is trying to become the iPhone of mobility, perhaps even your life. Toyota invited us to Japan to see what it's up to, allowing us to drive everything from a prototype hydrogen vehicle that will be sold in the U.S. by 2015 to scooters and medical devices. Heck, we even went inside a prefabbed Toyota-built tract home. Yes, those exist. It's all in the name of becoming much more than just what you drive; it's about becoming a provider of solutions to help live your life easier. So let's see what Toyota's got.

2015 Hydrogen Car

For three laps around what will eventually become the site of the 2020 Olympic Village, Toyota gave us the opportunity to drive mules of what will eventually become its hydrogen-powered car that will be sold in California, Japan, Europe, and wherever else the infrastructure crops up. Set to be priced at around $50,000 when it goes on sale in the next two years, the car will have all-new sheetmetal and be able to go more than 300 miles on 5 kg of hydrogen.
Using a cheaper fuel cell stack--the converter that turns hydrogen into electricity--than what Toyota has thus far put into limited production for its FCHV-adv Highlander prototypes, the hydrogen car will shave 95 percent of the cost of production from the earlier car, yet be more efficient. The car we drove was a prototype--complete in a Lexus HS 250h body and with a cobbled-together interior--but its powertrain and chassis setup were basically what we'll see when the car reaches production. That is to say that it's punchy, chirping the tires, with whirring from generators and electric motors abound. We estimate it will have between 140 and 150 horsepower. Its steering is progressive, yet numb, which Toyota will surely keep tuning. And its suspension was surprisingly sporty. We'll see what the finished product will look like next month at the Tokyo Motor Show. So far, the car drives like a winner; we hope it will look like one, too.

Toyota i-Road Concept Car

How often do you get the opportunity to drive around a priceless concept car? For us, this would mark the first opportunity, so we made the most of it. The Toyota i-Road is a city car concept that Toyota says is headed for production, at least for Japan and congested urban areas overseas. Sitting tandem, the driver and his or her only passenger go under full electric power. Our tester was limited to 30 km/h, but the i-Road still provided us with an efficient and entertaining experience.
In the Toyota i-Road, the front wheels don't actually steer the car; they lean on a fixed yoke that helps the wheels pivot as if you were on a motorcycle. Instead, the rear wheel turns. The result is an ultra-tight turning circle and a driving sensation unlike anything on the road. Could it Toyota i-Road come to the U.S.? Possibly, especially if granted a motorcycle exemption to some federal safety laws. Will it? Toyota officials say that's still very much up in the air. All we know is that it should. It's a hoot to drive.

Toyota Winglet

Toyota is well aware that Japan is an aging country. Its old people are getting older, and its young people have seemingly forgotten how to make more young people. Last year, the country saw its lowest birth rate in recorded history. So the country needs two things: Easier mobility for older folks and the Japan Family Planning Association to hand out Marvin Gaye albums.
The latter probably isn't going to happen anytime soon, but the easier mobility will. Toyota has introduced a solution called the Winglet, which is similar in concept to a Segway but much better executed. The Toyota Winglet comes in both full scooter with handles and an ankle-only version. Lean left, and the Toyota Winglet goes left. Lean forward, and it moves with rapidity. The handle bar is more of a place to put your hands than something that's actually needed. Toyota had us race around a track it set up, albeit with helmets on and with a guide to make sure we didn't smash its hugely expensive prototypes into walls. As you can see from my expression above, I highly recommend it. As a side benefit, it also weighs next to nothing and easily fits into a car, making it a viable solution that looks far cooler than any four-wheel mobility scooter.

Toyota Partner Robot

But if you want to take your relationship with your robot to the next level (which may be your only option if you live in Japan these days), Toyota also has what it calls the Partner Robot. The Human Support Robot--HSR for short--is pretty much a service dog that doesn't ever need to go outside. Using a tablet computer, you tell the Partner Robot what to get, and it does it. No fuss, no muss. It can read bar codes on objects, detecting items automatically, or it can use your tablet as a monitor so you can pinpoint an object and have the Partner Robot retrieve it.
It can even pick flat objects like pictures or pieces of paper off the ground by using a vacuum tube in its arm. For both remote assistance and independent living support, the Partner Robot is an aid in all aspects. Perhaps its two biggest downfalls are those that haven't yet been overcome by robots versus something like a service dog: It doesn't yet travel well on carpet or varied terrains--it is a prototype--and it doesn't have a tail that wags. You know, it's a robot. It does what you tell it. But unlike a dog, it doesn't take pride in knowing that its yours; it just does what it needs to for you, coldly and without passion or enthusiasm.

Independent Walk Assist

So you have a bad knee or you're suffering from a stroke and learning how to walk again. You can either wear a brace that will prop you up and turn you into a young Forrest Gump, or you can take a little more control.
Once again catering an older audience, the machine helps move your leg when your muscles can't. It's lightweight and bends with the person using it, allowing him or her to sit down comfortably. It also allows for a more natural walking pattern than what might ordinarily be allowed by a steel brace, and it's perhaps one of the smartest ideas we've seen to come out of medical technology in ages. Besides a pack with batteries and a somewhat bulky knee support, we see very few downsides to this one. We just wonder what went on in the heads of Toyota's robot engineers to make them think of this one and eventually compete against medical device companies. Kudos, Toyota.

Toyota TNGA

The Toyota Next-Generation Architecture is Toyota's philosophy to designing common components for cars and crossovers to greatly cut down on cost and complexity. Similar in idea to Volkswagen's MQB architecture that will underpin everything from small cars to large SUVs, TNGA will differ in that it will assign components kits to different sets and sizes of cars. The next Toyota Yaris is going to be codesigned with Mazda, so that's not going to be a TNGA car. The next Corolla will share its components with the overseas Toyota Auris and similar sized Scion products. The Camry, European Avensis, and other midsizers will share parts. And there will be more sharing of common hip points, air bags, and electrical systems.
You may never recognize a TNGA vehicle as sharing defined parts with another car--at least on the surface--but Toyota promises that the components will be making their way to production beginning in 2015. Toyota says that as a result, its next cars will be lower, more fun to drive, and more distinctive. It doesn't want to make generic cars anymore; it wants to make cars that fascinate people. We say that Toyota is already one of the world's largest automakers; why on earth does it want to fix something that ain't broken? We may criticize some Toyotas for a lack of driving dynamics, but a company is in charge of making money--not necessarily appeasing those of us who review its products. Perhaps this announcement was just a pep rally for the automotive enthusiast media.

Smart Home

Outside of Aichi, Japan, exists Toyota City. Within Toyota City is Toyota's Ecoful Town, a model of technology showing just how green-centric one can make a community. Beyond the hydrogen filling station, the electric ride -share cars, and the little visitor center with all sorts of ecologically sound activities and informational videos--the sort of place you'd take a Cub Scout troop if it were in the U.S.--is a smart home.
What's that? For approximately $500,000, which really isn't too bad considering the price of real estate in Japan, residents in Toyota City can purchase an approximately 1,600 square-foot tract home that's modern, airy, and built from the ground up by Toyota. They'll have two cars provided for two years--a Toyota Prius Plug-In and what we know as the Scion iQ EV--and have solar panels installed on their house. What's the catch? Toyota will record their every energy use habit. The smart home uses a lithium-ion battery to story solar energy and electricity from the grid. The house charges the electric cars at off-peak times and can even pull energy from the vehicles at peak hours to keep costs down. Basically, energy use is programmed and managed through a computer. After the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan, the country cut its energy use by approximately one third to keep its electrical grid from overloading. Since then, it has maintained those levels even though the infrastructure can handle the levels that they once were. Japan has been implementing more smart-grid plans and has been looking at expanding its energy conservation presence. If such an idea works, look for it to make its way to the U.S., even if Toyota isn't the company managing it.
Toyota Future Technologies 09

Smart Safety Controls and Autonomous Driving Systems

In a quick rundown of other technologies, Toyota showed us a parallel parking assist system, around-view cameras to better see in tight areas, and active cruise control. None of those technologies are particularly new outside of Toyota anymore, and we didn't find them too fascinating.
Three pieces were, however: smart cruise control using car-to-car communication, lane trace control, and pedestrian avoidance. The first system used shortwave radio systems for cars to communicate with one another, always maintaining the same predetermined distance between each car. If the car ahead of it braked, the following car would do so automatically as well. Toyota says could be a solution to maintaining traffic speeds in heavy congestion. Next up, lane trace control can follow lines on a road, staying within them on a curvy road. Toyota representatives say this can help when a driver is fatigued or even distracted, keeping the car from veering into another lane. Of course, it's accompanied by bright colors and clear graphics on the car's infotainment display. Automakers like Mercedes-Benz and Acura already have similar systems on the market, but they require the driver to keep his or her hands on the wheel. Toyota's system, tested in a Lexus GS 350, will keep the car headed in the right direction so long as there are lines on either side of the road to follow. At times, our driver did his best "Look, Ma, no hands!" We weren't alarmed. Too much, at least. Last up, Toyota let us drive a Prius with pedestrian avoidance systems that automatically slam on the brakes and pull to the far side of a lane once it picks up an absent-minded pedestrian standing in the road. Scary how abrupt and effective it is, Toyota has designed the system to keep the car in its current lane but reach as far to the edge of it as it can as not to hit the pedestrian. Toyota says its current camera technologies limit stretching into the next lane, but that could be rectified. Also, there's always the small issue of another car possibly being next to yours. The car would have to have more processing power to be able to decide just where outside the lane to go if such a system were to be designed. Could Toyota do it? Sure. But because of ditches, ruts, and embankments, it might just be smarter to refine the current system before it sees production later this decade.
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Justus Agatuo
Justus Agatuo

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