TOKYO: In 1939, General Motors (GM) wowed millions at the New York World Fair with its “Futurama” exhibit purporting to show in model form what life would look like in 1960.
Much of what was depicted – sprawling suburbia, skyscrapers and seven-lane highways – has come to pass as GM helped to map out a car-centred landscape as the world’s leading auto maker.
At next year’s World Expo, Toyota Motor Corp will also be out to impress – this time with real, rather than imagined, technology.
Having lobbied heavily to hold the event near its headquarters in Aichi, central Japan, the world’s second-biggest car maker will spend about US$35mil to excite the 15 million expected expo-goers with its latest technology and concepts that it hopes to apply in real life one day.
Among the highlights will be an unmanned platoon of people-movers guided by a row of magnets in the ground, an orchestra of horn-blowing robots, and a one-seater capsule on wheels that doubles as a communication tool between drivers.
“I have no doubt that (GM’s exhibit) was one of the major driving forces behind the ensuing change in landscape,” said Shin Kanada, a top Toyota official heading the group’s expo plans.
“I don’t think we can send a message to change lifestyles, there’s too much available information now, but diversification (of transportation methods) will occur.”
The magnet-guided Intelligent Multimode Transit System or IMTS, features glass-covered buses that are designed to automatically keep a safe distance between each other, an idea that GM’s Futurama exhibit toyed with 65 years ago.
Toyota said the IMTS would cost less to operate than today’s public transport systems since it did not need rail tracks or driver.
Visitors will also be able to ride the Toyota group’s hydrogen-powered fuel cell buses, which emit only water and have been running on limited routes in Tokyo since last August.
The Aichi Expo will run for six months, starting March 25.
Toyota also plans to depict a world free of traffic accidents using the single-seater, capsule-shaped “i-unit” vehicle, which will have built-in sensors to automatically dodge other vehicles.
The i-unit, still under development and derived from the personal mobility concept shown at last year’s Tokyo Motor Show, stems from Toyota’s research into IT and artificial intelligence – hence the robots – to one day “teach” cars to avoid crashes.
“When people walk through crowds, they send signals to each other that help them to not bump into one another,” Kanada said. “It’s a distant dream, but if we could teach cars to do this, there would be no accidents, and we’d be able to build lighter cars and thereby reduce energy consumption.”
Engineers also say the i-unit could one day become an advanced version of a wheelchair, driven on regular roads as well as into lifts and homes.
Toyota knows that such a drastic step would require a concerted effort within the industry and by regulatory authorities, not to mention sweeping changes in road infrastructure.
But a bigger challenge, it says, could be preparing society mentally, and that’s what it hopes to achieve at the expo.
“The speed of progress can’t surpass the speed of change in the mindset,” Kanada said.
To be sure, Toyota is not alone in wanting to take the lead in future methods of mobility and “greener” cars.
GM has poured in billions of dollars to develop hydrogen-powered cars and hopes to be the first to mass-market the zero-emissions vehicles by 2010.
Japan’s Honda Motor was ahead of Toyota in creating a humanoid robot, which it eventually wants to assist disabled people, or perform dangerous work such as clearing land mines.
But with cash reserves approaching US$30bil, Toyota is pursuing next-generation technology on the broadest front by far.
In addition to cutting tail-pipe emissions and building more fuel-efficient cars, Toyota last year began using biodegradable plastics developed in-house in some of its cars, and has plans to supply the crop-based material to a wide range of companies from computer makers to supermarket chains.
Its 30m tall pavilion at the Aichi Expo will employ recycled paper and kenaf, and be fully reused and recycled after the event. Its share of electricity will be generated by non-polluting wind power at a nearby car assembly plant.
“Our aim is to put zero burden on the environment at the expo,” a Toyota spokesman said. – Reuters
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