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 in th US, 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 60kph, 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.”
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.
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.
Chris Zegras, an associate professor of transportation and urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 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.”
Toyota did not yet have a clear timeline for introducing the i-Road on the global market, 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.