Zipcar, you may be about to be zapped.
Uber, prepare to be one-upped.
Google (GOOG) self-drive, you may be motoring off to autonomous driving oblivion.
Toyota has joined the ranks of those enterprises who want to solve the urban transportation puzzle and, being Toyota, it is making a very ambitious effort. Unlike those Silicon Valley stalwarts, it isn’t content with looking at one piece of the puzzle—it wants to build a whole new system, from the ground up.
In the process, Toyota has pioneered a very unconventional approach to city driving and redefined the workday commute not as daily drudgery but as another opportunity to enjoy the pleasure of driving. Not surprisingly for an automaker, Toyota has put a motor vehicle at the center of its system. But this time, instead of a stolid sedan in the tradition of the Camry, it has created an electric motorbike that is designed to excite its users. The pod-like carrier is rented, not owned, protects its occupants from the elements, and leans going around corners like a racer at the Isle of Man. For a company that has always stressed functionality, Toyota’s new focus on fun comes as a revelation.
The motorbikes and the infrastructure that supports them are known as “Ha:mo, which is Japanese shorthand for “Harmonious Mobility Network.” Simply put, it is Toyota’s vision of the urban transportation future, one that that relies on public transit, shared electric vehicles and a computer network that connects all the pieces together and relays traffic information directly to drivers in real time.
Toyota is still betting on plug-in hybrids and fuel cell cars for most driving applications. But it sees electric vehicles as well suited for short trips. “Urban mobility solutions will be a key growth area for Toyota in the future,” says Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada, who, as the engineer regarded as the father of the Prius, knows something about the future of transpotation. “We are very excited to be working in solving urban traffic problems.”
Ha:mo moved out of the development lab and on to the street for the first time at a Toyota City test-drive event last March. The drive was successful and the system moved to Grenoble, France, for a three-year tryout. Ha:mo aims to complement Grenoble’s public transport network with a solution for short trips. The vehicles and their charging stations are connected to the IT infrastructure of Grenoble’s transport network, offering both route planning and online mobile app reservations.
So last fall, 70 Toyota electric vehicles began whirring around Grenoble’s crowded highways and narrow back streets, cutting commuter times and entertaining the users. As with Uber, the Ha:mo user can locate a vehicle with a cellphone app, select the most traffic-free route, and reserve it for a trip. And in a nod to Zipcar, Ha:mo allows users to check out a vehicle at a starting point and then drop it off at a station near a destination at one of 27 charging stations.
The motorbikes come in three- and four-wheeled versions. Think of the four-wheeled ones, made by Toyota Auto Body and known as COMS, as the sensible, sedan-like EVs, stable and sedate. Technically referred to as narrow-track vehicles, three of them can fit into a single parking space.
The three-wheeled motorbikes, known as i-Roads, are the sports cars of the Ha:mo system. About three feet wide, they have a top speed of 28 mph. Power comes from two electric motors in the front wheel and stability from a rear directional wheel.
Toyota says the automatic active lean mechanism on the i-Road “produces a ski-like driving motion for smooth cornering with outstanding stability on bumpy surfaces.” The left and right front wheels move up and down, independently synchronized in response to the driver’s steering, and the vehicle automatically selects the optimal lean angle when cornering. The effect in the two-passenger pod is “cutting swiftly through the air in an exhilarating motion.” Just in case somebody doesn’t get the message that this is all supposed to be about fun, the i-Roads are dressed up in two-tone paint jobs in Day-Glo colors.
Toyota may have found the perfect application for electric vehicles because city use minimizes the impact of two of their biggest drawbacks: range and cost. Both the i-Road and COMS can go for about three hours on a charge, which is far longer than their intended use, and the vehicles are rented by the hour, not sold. Users are charged the equivalent of a few dollars for each use.
Ha:mo is succeeding in Grenoble but it faces obstacles being adopted elsewhere. “Too bad it is going to fall flat on its face,” wrote one blogger on The Truth About Cars. His argument: Ha:mo can’t add much to Japan’s own superbly efficient public transportation system, and it can’t add enough to the U.S.’s fragmented one. At a more functional level, the ski-like driving motion of the i-Road may seem less desirable in heavy rain, sleet, or snow. And you can only imagine what the addition of several hundred (or several thousand) motorbike motorists would do to traffic congestion in Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles.
Still, there are vast opportunities out there to marry new IT technologies with innovative transportation soluitions. And now that Toyota has entered the arena, the competition it provides for Zipcar, Uber, Google and all the rest only means that results will come faster than before.