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Finding a New Ikigai: How Toyota Plans to Improve Mobility

The company wants to preserve your "reason for being."

I'm rolling along in a hotel parking lot in Tokyo, on what can best be described as part Segway, part Bird scooter—only way slower. Although the little electric-powered machine doesn't go nearly fast enough for my tastes, it's also easier to use than either of those aforementioned personal mobility mobiles, featuring a sturdy, three-wheeled design and a small platform that easily supports both of my feet. And oh yeah, it's developed and built by Toyota.

As I carve around in a small circle at a leisurely pace, part of me questions what the heck Toyota is doing here. Why should I care? I'm here to see and drive some cars. But to Toyota, it's toe-in-the-water efforts like these it hopes will pay big dividends in the future.

It's a directional move driven in part by the rapidly aging Japanese population. Toyota is testing various mobility devices like the one I rode on as a way to help keep those people active and part of the community. As anyone who reaches the twilight of life knows, when your means of transportation is taken away from you, a part of your ikigai—Japanese for "reason for being"—goes with it.

Ikigai is a key concept that Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), and his team have seized upon as part of their reason for being. Pratt and TRI are creating mobility solutions and human support robots for older, retired people, for those who have lost their ikigai mojo. But Pratt and Co. also realize that to get there, they need to find ways for humans and machines to better work together, to develop a trust between them, to make them teammates in a sense.

Toyota believes a teammate concept is just as applicable to future automobiles. As ever more artificial intelligence, drive-by-wire systems, and other autonomous technologies spider into cars, there will inevitably be a tendency to feel divorced from it all, to surrender to the tech. But according to James Kuffner, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute - Advanced Development (TRI-AD), Toyota aims to have "human driving and advanced technology working together." During their presentations, Pratt and Kuffner rolled out another Japanese term: aisha, which loosely translates to "love of car." TRI believes it can continue to foster the love many drivers have for their cars by developing systems that enhance the synergy between man and machine.

All of this sounds swell in theory, but there are elephants and gorillas galore in the room. It's an especially thorny proposition for a corporate colossus with decades of expertise building hardware in the form of cars, but not so much developing software. How do you get there if you're Toyota? Naturally, you create TRI-AD, a whole new software development subdivision inside of TRI  and a multibillion-dollar joint venture between Toyota and automotive electronics giants Denso and Aisin. It's an effort dedicated to building out the type of solutions necessary to get ahead in the brave new world of automated driving.

We got a little taste of what the TRI-AD crew has been up to thanks to a quick demonstration. We watched as a "driver" got into a simulator and donned a headset designed to virtually emulate the cockpit of the wild Lexus LF-30 concept that met the world at the recent 2019 Tokyo auto show. Digital eyes darted around a screen as the software tracked the driver's every movement. Once the data is analyzed and changes are made, developers have the ability to push those updates to another system that emulates the car's hardware so they can analyze the changes in a real-world environment. It's a setup that TRI-AD engineers say will dramatically decrease the amount of development time necessary to bring finalized software systems to market. And as other automakers have also begun doing, Toyota envisions being able to make over-the-air updates to the software running advanced safety and other driver-centric systems.

As for when you'll actually see all of this next-generation tech roll out to future Toyota cars is an open question, but the company is taking full advantage of its 2020 Tokyo Olympics platform to showcase some of its latest advancements. For example, we got a demo of a compact, four-wheeled robot that uses lidar and radar to aid Olympic support personnel in retrieving throwing-event implements such as javelins and hammers. Toyota will also run demo cars and transports at Olympic venues featuring the latest versions of its highly automated technologies.

A massive corporation like Toyota can't magically change overnight, and becoming just as proficient at developing software that will power the future as it already is at building vehicles will take time. Like that plucky little scooter, slow and steady will be the order of the day as it sets out to find its new ikigai.

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