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These Concepts Say Toyota Has Mobility Figured Out

A new transportation eco-system emerges from the massive automaker.

The Tokyo Motor Show always picks a theme—the event happens every two years—and for 2019 it was "Open Future." By itself, it doesn't mean much: Is the future open, or should we open the future? It means a lot to the Japanese automakers, however, that thoroughly dominate this regional show. Mercedes-Benz, Alpina, and Alpine were all there, but it's mostly about Japan's Big Three, Toyota, Nissan, and Honda, and the smaller companies that either are thriving, such as Subaru, or are hanging on, like Mazda and Mitsubishi.

The automakers, Japanese and otherwise, are trying to anticipate the coming decade with a variety of Silicon Valley-style "disruptive" ideas and plans, like ride-sharing and subscription services, and at least a couple are trying to convince Wall Street and the consuming public they're not automakers anymore. I'm thinking a little of General Motors and Mercedes-Benz, but mostly Ford and Toyota. They have become "mobility" companies. One appears to be succeeding.

Mercedes has its EQ models and GM has a couple dozen all-new EVs due in the next few years, as well as Cadillac Super Cruise and its Cruise autonomous drive-share technology under development. Ford is playing catchup in the EV market with its imminent "Mustang-style" four-door EV crossover.

As for Toyota, credit the International Olympic Committee for giving the Japanese automaker an excuse to push out these future technologies ahead of everyone else. Every city in the world regards the IOC with the same disdain as the many places that invested in Formula 1 events only to be shafted by Bernie Ecclestone after a few years of being drained of cash by his organization. If we're at Peak Car, Toyota will see us through the darkness with a series of rolling experiments such as the electric autonomous people-movers that will shuttle Olympians around the Village.

In 2017, Toyota presented its new hybrid English-style JPN city cab and a new Century limo to replace the Crown Comfort taxi and previous Century in time for next year's Olympics. Tokyo's relative fondness for the IOC goes back to 1964, when the first Olympics held in Asia spawned numerous industrial efforts to modernize everything from the '64 Toyota Crown Comfort cab and Century limousine to the first transpacific communications cable (to Hawaii), as well as new infrastructure, including many of the modern business/luxury hotels where executives and media stay for the Motor Show and the Shinkansen bullet train. The Toyota JPNs already are mixed into the Tokyo taxi fleet still dominated by the 1964-design Crown Comfort. Ceremonies for Japan's new emperor, Naruhito, featuring his new Century phaeton, clogged up traffic the first press day of the show.

We complained about Olympic organizers taking over a part of the Tokyo Big Show building previously used by the auto show, which relegated Toyota, Subaru, and big trucks to a separate building a 10-minute bus ride away. Toyota hid its stunning new Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell sedan in a sort of shopping mall adjacent to the building housing the rest of its display, which this year consisted solely of concept vehicles and robots and such.

It was all future, with no current Toyota production models, and as bleak as it might appear to gas-in-the-veins gearheads, it seems pretty astute. Back in Tokyo Big Site, the Lexus LF-30 predicted solid state batteries replacing lithium-ion ones by about mid-decade.

At the temporary site where the Toyota brand had its display, a video screen displaying a sort of clean, Disney-animated version of a Blade Runner cityscape served as a permanent backdrop for its concepts. The Toyota e-Palette electric-autonomous bus rolled onto the floor at regular intervals, to let out a group of perky young performers wearing white spandex clothes and electronic bulletin-board face masks to tumble and dance around it. There was e-Care, an autonomous rolling remote health check, Micro Palette, a small package delivery robot that "delivers goods to a loved one, along with the feelings that go with it," e-4me, a one-seat AV/EV rolling box that can be used as a dressing room or a small gym, and Ultra-compact BEV, "a tiny two-seater, similar to smart." Toyota adds, "There is a chance for a production version, for the Japanese market."

Apparently as an alternative to the urban electric scooters that motorists and bicyclists both hate equally, Toyota showed the e-broom, an EV one rides like a witch—or rather, as a warlock would, as the model zooming around the stage on it was male. There was also the Toyota LQ di Jepang, said to be similar to the automaker's 2017 CES concept. "This one is reportedly more street ready, though," Toyota says cryptically in its press materials. The Toyota e-Chargeair, which comes with an air purifier and Wi-Fi, is a four-wheeled robot that can recharge other BEVs while on the move and does city electrical systems as well. And the e-Trans is an EV/AV van for ride-and-share service. On a nearby stand, a business unit called Toyota Auto Body showed a long, not too tall EV truck hauling 18 individual metal boxes for household deliveries, Amazon-style.

For us, there's the Toyota e-Racer, an open 1+1 seat electric sports car. It's handsome and purposeful-looking, with a roll-bar built into the lower body, and even if it's an EV, it looks tactile. Except it was unveiled with a young model jumping in and affixing virtual-reality glasses over her eyes. The glasses allowed her to simulate racing along a circuit of her choice without really going anywhere. Ah, well. The e-Racer ought to make it to market about the time that non-autonomous driving involves commuting to a local racetrack for a few laps on weekends.

A couple of other displays outside of Toyota's "Future Playground" ties this all together. On a field dominated by food trucks was a small display of van life/tiny house-style campers, including an irresistibly small-homey Toyota HiAce outfitted by a company named Craftplus. The entrance to this field featured a lineup of various electric scooters and three- or four-wheeled city commuters, like the Nissan New Mobility concept, a version of the Renault Twizy that has been marketed for years in western Europe. Off in another corner was a Tokyo Motor Show demo of e-scooters allowing showgoers to try their hands navigating them around a short course. I could picture suburbanites, in eight or 10 years, driving to work in the city using Nissan New Mobilities, riding e-scooters to lunch, and camping on weekends in their Craftplus-equipped Toyota HiAces.

Yamaha's stand included a slew of EV motorbikes and three-wheelers alongside its gasoline-engined crotch rockets. The stand also displayed its own line of e-bicycles. Other than GM's slick, folding, and western-Europe-only Ariv, I can't think of any electrically assisted bikes from anything other than a bicycle maker. Yamaha has come full circle; like most motorcycle brands that have been around more than a century, its first models were essentially bikes with motors (albeit gas-fired) attached.

That's when it struck me that the Olympic-stunted show demonstrated a near-future transportation eco-system, with Toyota dominating. Toyota has transformed itself from being Japan's dominant automaker to being Japan's—and the world's—dominant mobility company. My one fear of this future is that human-pedaled bikes might soon become as rare as manual gearboxes.