Ultimate automotive arrogance, or a viable future proposition?
As one of the largest vehicle and technology companies in the world, Toyota has an important responsibility to fulfil, highlights Iain Robertson, but he also questions the point at which vehicle branding becomes intrinsic to survival of the human race.
Toyota has revealed ambitious plans to build a prototype ‘city of the future’, on a 175-acre site at the base of the sacred Mount Fuji in Japan. Announced at CES 2020, the global consumer technology show being held in Las Vegas, the Woven City will be a fully connected ecosystem, powered entirely by hydrogen fuel cells.
Envisioned as a ‘living laboratory’, it remains to be seen whether the city would be a suitable home to full-time residents and researchers (or perhaps just human ‘lab-rats’), whom will be able to test and develop technologies such as autonomy, robotics, personal mobility, smart homes and artificial intelligence in a ‘real-world’ environment. The implications are much further reaching than the utopia, or perhaps dystopia, that might result.
Akio Toyoda, Toyota Motor Corporation President, stated: “Building a complete city from the ground up, even on a small scale like this, is an unique opportunity to develop future technologies, including a digital operating system for its infrastructure. With people, buildings and vehicles all connected and communicating with each other through data and sensors, we shall be able to test connected AI technology, in both the virtual and physical realms, in order to maximise its potential.”
Toyota will extend an open invitation of collaboration to other commercial and academic partners, while inviting interested scientists and researchers from around the world to come and work on their projects in this one-of-a-kind, real-world incubator. Mr Toyoda concluded: “We shall welcome all those people inspired to improve the ways in which we may live in the future to take advantage of this unique research ecosystem and to join us in our quest to create an ever-better way of life and mobility for all.”
Toyota has commissioned Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, CEO of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), to design Woven City. His team has designed many high-profile projects, from 2 World Trade Center, in New York City, and Lego House in Denmark, to Google’s Mountain View and London headquarters.
Under the city’s masterplan, street use will have three distinct designations: for faster vehicles only; for a mix of lower-speed vehicles, personal mobility and pedestrians; and for pedestrians only (using a park-like promenade). These three street types will weave together in an organic grid pattern to help accelerate the testing of autonomous, driverless transport.
The city is intended to be fully sustainable, with buildings made mostly of wood, using traditional Japanese joinery and robotised production methods, to minimise the carbon footprint. The roofs of each property would be covered in photo-voltaic panels in order to generate solar power, adding to the energy produced for the city by hydrogen fuel cells. Toyota also plans to weave in the natural world throughout the city, with native vegetation and hydroponic developments.
Residential buildings would be equipped with the latest human support technologies, such as in-home robotics, to assist with daily living. Homes would use sensor-based AI to check the occupants’ health, take care of basic needs and enhance daily life. The project would be an opportunity to deploy connected technology with integrity and trust, it is hoped both securely and positively.
Only fully autonomous, zero-emission vehicles would be allowed on the main thoroughfares as a means of transporting residents around the city. Autonomous Toyota e-Palette vehicles would be used for bulk goods transport and deliveries, and as reconfigurable mobile retail units.
Neighbourhood parks, a large central recreation area and a central plaza for social gatherings would be designed to bring the community together, if working all day alongside the same people can be regarded as tolerable. Toyota believes that encouraging human connections will be an equally important aspect of the Woven City experience.
Toyota plans to populate Woven City with employees and their families, retired couples, retailers, visiting scientists and industry partners. The plan would be to start with 2,000 people and increase the number as the city evolves. For what it is worth, ground-breaking for the site is scheduled for early 2021. If you are interested in partnering with the project, you can find more details at ‘Woven-city.global’.
To be quite honest, as ambitious as this utopian urban dream might seem to be, I do believe that it might be stretching the credibility of the western-influenced mindsets of Japanese personnel. Of course, to a certain extent, a project such as this would work more efficaciously in a state-controlled population, such as exists in China.
A 2015 Hollywood science-fiction film production by Disney (‘Tomorrowland’; worthy of viewing) hinted at an EPCOT-style city of the future. The movie, which featured starring roles for George Clooney and Hugh Laurie, crossed $209m worldwide, against production and marketing costs of $330m, which cost the Disney Corporation around $120-140m. Whether or not that is a portent to the future of such idealism is immaterial, when Toyota has already invested substantially in a project set for unveiling in around a year’s time.
Conclusion: Either Toyota is being exceptionally bullish, or simply over-ambitious about the value of its brand, but as a ‘test facility’ to address issues related to connectivity, autonomy and community, it may prove to carry additional values that have not yet been perceived. It’s a brave new world, for sure!