Tokyo motor show 2019: Toyota’s strange transformation



At the Tokyo motor show, the president of the world’s best-selling car brand decided not to talk about cars for a change. Instead, Akio Toyoda spoke passionately and charismatically about Toyota’s future, but did so without pointing out a single new machine destined for showrooms.

“Our booth this time does not feature a single car to be launched next year,” he said. “All that is found here are forms of mobility that link to society and communities, and that provide modes of getting around and services to people.”

Some of these included the downright wacky; Mr Toyoda introduced a “magic broom” and a model skated on stage strsddling the e-Broom, an electric contraption that the boss then invited visitors to try for themselves.

As for passenger cars, he issued a different invitation. “We have prepared our new cars for you to see at another place,” Mr Toyoda said. “Please go have a look.”

Toyota is still a car company, of course. In 2018 the nameplate put more than 8m cars on the road, meaning one in 10 new cars last year was a Toyota. German rival Volkswagen Group produced more cars between its numerous brands, but Toyota is still the biggest selling single name in cars.

Still, Mr Toyoda declared last year that he intends to reshape Toyota as a mobility company, and move it away from being a car-maker. What that means exactly is hard to nail down. At Tokyo this year the company showed off a huge number of vehicles in what could be interpreted as a try-everything-and-see-what-sticks strategy.

It announced plans to produce and sell two battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) by late next year: a three-wheeled scooter for users to stand on, and the Ultra Compact Battery Electric Vehicle (below, left), a tiny two-seater with a range of 100km and a top speed of just 60km/h, designed to be painless for new or elderly drivers to operate.

It also showed the Mirai Concept, an undisguised look at the next-generation version of its futuristic hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle (FCV), a car looking unapologetically large, luxurious and shapely. 

All three vehicles said something about Toyota’s thinking. The Ultra Compact BEV is a statement that Toyota considers battery power best suited to short-range, low-cost runabouts, while the Mirai (below) embodies the belief that hydrogen is the true solution to our future energy needs.

As for the BEV scooter, it’s an example of how Mr Toyoda believes being a mobility company means building vehicles for everyone, including the less abled.

His thoughts on repositioning Toyota seem to have taken shape when, three years ago, he was moved by something a paralympic athlete told him to his face. “Since I lost my future to a car accident, I have hated cars,” she told him. Finding out that Toyota would sponsor the Paralympic Games changed her mind. “I realised that cars could also help rebuild my future,” she said.

Since then, Mr Toyoda has advanced two phrases as rallying slogans for his company. “Mobility for all” and “Fun to drive” have become bookends for Toyota to slot its products between.

At Tokyo, cars relevant to both were on display. Mr Toyoda arrived on stage inside the e-Palette, an electric, driverless shuttle that will be used in the Athletes Village at the Tokyo 2020 games. He bounded out, and spoke with enthusiasm about what he envisions is possible for the self-driving machine.

“In the future, the e-Palette will be able to be an office, a shop, or even a hotel. It will be able to become various kinds of services, and it will go to people,” he said. Imagine a pop-up store on wheels, piloting itself to your neighbourhood, or an expanded Japanese-style vending machine that makes stops around the country.

At the “Fun to drive” side of things, he debuted the e-Racer (above), a sporty-looking electric pod that Mr Toyoda cheekily suggested should be ubiquitous. “The cars in everyone’s garages will all be sports cars, like this e-Racer,” he said. “Well, that’s a little overstating it, but wanting to move about as one wishes, and wanting to go faster and farther are, I think, universal human desires.”

Mr Toyoda had a wider point to make, about where he believes cars in general are headed. He compared them to horses.

In the United States, 15 million of them were replaced by cars, but that hasn’t killed them off completely. Racing horses are still around, Mr Toyoda pointed out. “The joy of riding a horse can hold its own against or even outdo what cars have to offer. If there is an obstacle, a horse can avoid it. If there is a hole in the ground, a horse can make its own judgement and jump over it,” he said. “Horses can communicate with people and their hearts. For people who ride them, horses are irreplaceable.”

Toyota’s work on artificial intelligence is meant to make sure that its cars will someday be able to communicate with people in the same way, and build emotional bonds that could save private cars from being consigned to history.

The analogy gives Toyota a clear path for its future. “If we look at shared forms of mobility, such as the e-Palette, as if they were horse carriages, forms of mobility owned by individuals, like the e-Racer, would be beloved horses,” Mr Toyoda said. “I would say that this means that our future society of mobility will be a society in which horse carriages and beloved horses co-exist.”

Whether society eventually gravitates more towards the horse or the carriage, this year’s Tokyo show revealed that Mr Toyoda is determined to make sure that his company is in a position to offer both. “Mobility for all” might seem like only a slogan today, but for Toyota it might be an incantation against obsolescence. 

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Leow Julen
Leow Ju-Len is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 25 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.