Japan and the Future of Personal Transportation

We’ve been witness over the past few years of the rise of city bikes, hybrids, electric, and clean burning diesel cars; we’ve also seen prototypes of urban personal mobility vehicles, whose use will likely rise dramatically in the coming decades due to increased urbanization. And it’s our far east friends in Japan who at the forefront of the development of such vehicles, from robotically-assisted exoskeletons to enclosed electric scooters to portable motorized chairs.

What wheeled dreams may come.

The landscape of transportation is always changing, but recent years have seen the greatest degree of change, perhaps ever — and that pace will only accelerate in the future. We live in the days of city bikes, hybrids, electrics, and clean-burning diesel cars; but we’ve also seen prototypes of urban personal mobility vehicles, whose use will likely rise dramatically in the coming decades due to increased urbanization. Our Far East friends in Japan are at the forefront of the development of such vehicles, from robotically assisted exoskeletons to enclosed electric scooters to portable motorized chairs. It just so happens that the convergence of environmentalism, urbanization and the burgeoning elderly population in Japan is what’s driving the rising tide of such vehicles and has made the present a reliable snapshot of things to come in the field of personal mobility.

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The World Health Organization shows urbanization (populations shifting from rural to urban areas) increasing at a rapid rate. As economies become more dependent on technology, industry and service rather than on farming and agriculture, that shift will only increase in the coming years. Prior to 1990, fewer than forty percent of the global population was urbanized but now for the first time in history, the majority of the world’s population (more than half) now live in cities. Estimates show that by 2030, 6 out of every 10 people will live in urban areas, and by 2050, it will be 7 out of 10. This will have profound changes on the ways we get around.

And it’s more complicated than that. Parking is a premium, and the cost of an average new car is around $30k, essentially prohibitive for many urban youth. Electric car charging stations, car sharing, and city bike rentals are already prevalent in many major cities across America, but even a major increase in their use will likely not accommodate for the increased urban population density since the need for smaller personal vehicles should rise dramatically as space becomes a commodity and the drive for a clean environment becomes the standard. Expanding the infrastructure for public transportation isn’t the easiest (or most cost effective), either.

Personal mobility vehicles don’t quite fit into the same category as cars, motorcycles or even bicycles. They can operate on sidewalks and in large buildings where there’s ample space to move; they’re electrically powered to be efficient and environmentally sound. Here in America, we don’t have much of a reference point. The Segway PT (or Personal Transportation) comes as close to a personal mobility vehicle as we’ve seen, but it’s been relegated to law enforcement, the occasional bike trail and those dorky city tours you swore you’d never go on. But that example is limiting, since it’s unlikely a vehicle like the Segway will ever get widespread use.

In Japan, however, the expectation is that personal mobility vehicles will be in widespread use in the very near future. Some prototypes on display at technology and automotive shows have already been put in production and are currently in use. Not only are they effective for the elderly, but they provide a means of transportation when it’s simply too far to walk and not far enough to go through the hassle of using an automobile. Vehicles like the small Honda UNI-CUB have been tested and used in Tokyo’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan) with both personnel and visitors. It’s a vehicular spinoff of Honda’s robotic ASIMO technology: the user can lean his or her body in the direction of desired motion and the vehicle will respond. The Miraikan’s spacious environment is perfect for the use of a small electric vehicle with no gas propulsion, zero emissions and zero noise to provide the fastest way from point A to Z and everywhere in between.

A prime example of a more versatile personal mobility vehicle that could very well pave the way for the near future is the Toyota i-Unit, created in 2005. It’s a one-seater with hand controls that can alter the seating position of the driver from near horizontal for street travel to vertical for indoor or highly populated environments. The wheelbase of the i-Unit also changes in length for a smaller footprint when the area is more crowded and keeps the operator at eye-level with pedestrians. The turning radius is so small that it can essentially rotate in place, making it very maneuverable in tight spaces. The speed in its driving mode is limited to around 20 mph, while that speed is curtailed to under 4 mph on the sidewalk or the pace of a fast walk. There’s also an abbreviated canopy to provide limited protection from the elements and the Intelligent Transport System (ITS) technology works to keep accidents with both pedestrians and other vehicles from occurring.

Toyota is still tweaking the i-Unit, possibly for mass production, and other companies not just in Japan but all over the globe are working to create the star of the next great wave in transportation technology. Nothing has come close to truly taking off just yet, but at least can see what the future and likely the near future holds, and these prototypes reveal the huge changes that may be on the horizon, with the potential to drastically alter the transportation landscape not just in Japan but also here in America.

CHEERS, JEERS? We’d love to hear from you. Email the author at akwon@gearpatrol.com and let him know what you think. It’s what warms our oil pans. Thanks for reading.

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