Toyota Asks for Ideas About How to Use an Ultrasmall Vehicle

AS a rush of innovation reshapes the automotive industry, from ride-hailing apps to autonomous driving technology, automakers have joined in rethinking the future of transportation.

Toyota, in one venture, is thinking small: a pint-size, three-wheeled electric vehicle called the i-Road. It has built prototypes of the vehicle, but now it needs to develop a market for it.

At a demonstration last month outside AT&T Park in San Francisco, the futuristic i-Road was put through its paces, zigzagging between orange cones, its two front wheels pivoting like the legs of a downhill skier. A pair of electric motors, which push the vehicle to a top speed of 37 miles per hour, emitted a soft whine.

At the same time, 10 teams of entrepreneurs pitched their business plans to Toyota representatives and experts in mobility, urban planning, engineering and finance. The entrepreneurs had reached the final round of the Smart Mobility Challenge, which Toyota described as a call “to the innovators of Silicon Valley for ideas on how the i-Road could potentially transform mobility across work and play in the San Francisco Bay Area.” The top prize was $15,000 and the chance to team up with Toyota in bringing the business plan to life.

One team, ToyotaCafe, proposed a sleek coffee shop where i-Road owners could work or lounge while their vehicles were serviced and recharged; another, Lubene, imagined a vehicle-sharing system that would ensure a steady supply of i-Roads in high-demand areas.

San Francisco seems an ideal proving ground for the i-Road. Its downtown streets — where bicycles vie for space with cars, trucks, tour buses and Google buses — cry out for a vehicle that is small, safe and nonpolluting. And who better to help discover and develop niches for the i-Road than the technology-steeped entrepreneurs who contend with San Francisco’s urban congestion on a regular basis?

Toyota is not the first company to explore the idea of ultrasmall electric vehicles for urban commuters. Two recent concepts, Honda’s three-wheeled 3R-C and Hyundai’s egg-shaped E4U, take aim at the same territory. But Toyota has gone the furthest in terms of real-world testing. In 2014 and 2015, Toyota started i-Road-sharing projects involving several dozen of the vehicles in Toyota City and Tokyo in Japan, and in Grenoble, France. The latter two are continuing.

Toyota has yet to roll out the i-Road in the United States. “We could bring the i-Road anytime,” said Masanori Yamato, corporate manager of Toyota Ventures, “but we would like to see more of a market opportunity first.”

Chris Zegras, an associate professor of transportation and urban planning at M.I.T., seemed intrigued by the i-Road’s potential.

“One could ask, ‘Isn’t this just a scooter with protection?’” he said in a recent telephone interview. “But it brings in the idea of a reduced footprint,” he added, noting that four i-Roads could fit in a single car-size parking space. “If you could quadruple park-and-ride without changing the overall parking footprint, that’s a big gain.”


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Among the possible niches for the i-Road are gaps in public transportation infrastructure. Noah Friedman, an urban designer at Perkins & Will, a global architecture firm that joined with Toyota in the event, said, “The cool thing for the Bay Area is that we have a pretty strong regional transportation backbone.”

The challenge, he continued, is “getting people to go to transit.”

“You can imagine having a fleet of these, that are occupying less parking spaces, and doing that as part of the public transit system rather than having private operators,” Mr. Friedman said. “The problem with Zipcar or Uber is that they’re private and the cost is prohibitively expensive for moderate-to-low-income families. That’s getting to the social equity issue.”

That issue of social equity is not lost on Toyota. Mr. Yamato said that while entrants in the Smart Mobility Challenge were judged on the quality of their presentations and the innovativeness and financial viability of their business plans, there was a fourth criterion as well: societal good.

The winning entry in the Smart Mobility Challenge envisioned an i-Road that changes its configuration depending on who is driving.

Jason Wiener, a Silicon Valley technology executive, devised the technology, which he called M-iRoad. When a licensed driver turns on the i-Road, software in the driver’s smartphone communicates with the vehicle’s software, allowing the i-Road to be driven up to its top speed of 37 m.p.h. If the user is 16 or older but does not have a driver’s license, the software limits the i-Road’s output to 4 horsepower and its speed to 20 m.p.h., effectively turning the i-Road into what the California Vehicle Code defines as a motorized bicycle.

A built-in “geofencing” feature allows families to establish boundaries for each driver. If the i-Road goes beyond a specified area, it sends a notification to the family, and a warning to the driver, who has 30 seconds to reverse course before the i-Road gently powers down.

“Students should not be able to run riot,” Mr. Wiener said. “Parents can set limits — going to or from school, or to soccer practice.”

A vehicle like this could also be a boon to urban seniors, and the geographical tracking feature would be a comfort to their families, he added.

The concept resonated with Mr. Yamato. “What we liked most about this idea,” he said, “was that it can provide more freedom to move for people who aren’t necessarily allowed to drive — teenagers who are unlicensed, and by the same token, seniors, who could be a little more dangerous with bigger vehicles that go faster.”

Mr. Yamato acknowledged that Toyota did not yet have a clear timeline for introducing the i-Road on the global market. “Certainly, this is a prototype,” he said. “We are currently stepping up to bring it to the mass-production phase.”

But at the demonstration, the vehicle performed as it was designed to do, dipping adroitly around the turns, giving a driver a sense of fun and freedom. “This event is meant to find a compelling business idea,” Mr. Yamato said, “and a starting point.”

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