Toyota has spent the last five years as the “Worldwide Mobility Partner” of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. So far, that’s equated to little more than providing some cars at the events—and making a big PR push. But in Tokyo at the 2020 Olympics, Toyota has bigger plans. The carmaker is providing approximately 3,700 vehicles for the event, many of which have never been released in public before, and 90% of them are electric. This fleet of vehicles varies wildly in scale and purpose, from small buses to personal scooters to robots that save you a trip altogether—and even help retrieve javelins from the field during track events.
For Toyota, it’s not just an opportunity to portray itself to the public as a forward-thinking car company. The Olympic Games—hosted in one of the densest cities in the world—is also the perfect opportunity to test these vehicles and bots in a busy, pedestrian-filled urban environment. Toyota, the car company that birthed the hybrid car revolution, has been dragging its feet for over a decade when it comes to adopting fully electric vehicles. At the Olympics, not only is the company planning to make a strong showing in terms of EVs, it seemingly wants to showcase its vision for the future of mobility in general.
What, exactly, will this fleet of vehicles look like? The vast majority, or roughly 2,700 of them, will be existing commercial products, like the hydrogen cell-powered Toyota Mirai. They’ll shuttle people between the Olympic venues. More interesting are the vehicles that Toyota is designing or adapting just for the 2020 Games.
That includes a new vehicle the company created for the event called an “APM,” or Accessible People Mover. Toyota will build 200 of these open-walled, battery-powered buses for people with limited mobility within areas like the Olympic Stadium. It’s a much more humane-looking version of those beefy, beeping golf carts you see at airports everywhere, and includes an extendable ramp along with wheelchair anchor plates.
Toyota will also be updating its so-called e-Pallette, which is an electric autonomous vehicle (monitored by a human onboard) that’s more or less an open room on wheels. It can lower all the way to a curb for easy wheelchair access, and a dozen of these will shuttle between the Olympic and Paralympic villages all the time.
Other vehicles the company plans to test will be less for daily use and more for show. That includes the Concept-i, an avant-garde concept car, complete with a semi-transparent door, an AI-powered voice interface, and some of the funkiest wheels we’ve ever seen. But don’t expect to ride in one if you visit the games. It looks like the Concept-i is built for TV moments: It’s “the operating vehicle at the Olympic torch relay and lead vehicle in the marathon,” according to the company.
Toyota is also debuting a trio of battery-powered personal transport devices at the games. These devices are meant to be used within and between event venues like the Olympic Stadium—a Toyota-powered fleet of electric mobility devices that anyone can rent. They include a standing scooter, a sitting scooter, and a motorized “wheelchair link” that can pull a chair for its operator.
But the weirder vehicles are those that won’t carry people at all.
As part of the campaign at the games, Toyota is releasing several robots. These include “Mascot” robots, which will welcome people at various venues, and a “Field Support Robot,” which will chase after javelins thrown at the games.
Then there’s the “T-HR3 humanoid,” which may be the most intriguing of the bunch. The bot will sit at events and experience and record them, then mirror the video to other T-HR3 robots offsite. “This will allow those at remote locations who interact with the T-HR3 humanoid robots to feel as if they are physically present at Games-related locations,” the company explains. Toyota claims that another type of robot will act as a virtual doppelgänger for people who can’t attend, allowing them to explore and talk to people at the games from afar. “The T-TR1 robot will give people who are unable to be physically present at Games-related locations a chance to attend virtually, with an on-screen facility allowing conversations between the two locations,” the company adds.
The idea is that even if you can’t make it to an event physically, the robot offers some tangible experience of it. Obviously, the success of these ambitious designs will hang on the execution—telepresence bots could verge on uncanny or creepy.
The Olympics may bring hundreds of thousands of tourists to Tokyo, creating an extreme stress test of urban planning. The city of Tokyo will spend an estimated $25 billion preparing for the Olympics, a chunk of which will go into a single stadium that will host many of the events. It seems that Toyota has plans to leverage Tokyo 2020 to test its thesis on the shape of urban mobility beyond single-owner vehicles. And if the future of driving, and telepresence robotics, is going to be beta tested anywhere, I’m selfishly glad the kinks may be worked out before it reaches my city.