Toyota wants to give a new meaning to the term “company town.”
The Japanese auto giant said it will transform the 175-acre site of a former car factory in Japan into a “prototype city of the future” where it can test autonomous vehicles, innovative street design, smart home technology, robotics, and new mobility products on a population of real people who would live there full-time.
The site, which is located at the base of Mount Fuji, will be designed by famed Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. It will house up to 2,000 people, including Toyota employees and their families, and it will be powered by the company’s hydrogen fuel cell technology. Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda said at CES that the company expects to break ground at the end of 2021.
Toyota is calling the site “Woven City,” a reference to weaving together three different types of streets or pathways, each for a specific type of user. One street would be for faster vehicles only. The second would be a mix of lower-speed personal mobility vehicles, like bikes and scooters, as well as pedestrians. And the third would be a park-like promenade for pedestrians only. “These three street types weave together to form an organic grid pattern to help accelerate the testing of autonomy,” the company says.
“This is my personal ‘Field of Dream,’” Toyoda added. “‘If you build it, they will come.’”
There’s nothing new about automakers using big plots of land to build proving grounds with fake city backdrops to test out new vehicles. But what Toyota is proposing is a dramatic escalation of that concept: a real city with real people who would live within the automaker’s amped-up vision of the future.
That vision includes a lot of autonomous vehicles. Last year, Toyota first introduced its “e-Palette” concept, which was described as a “fully-automated, next generation battery electric vehicle designed to be scalable and customizable for a range of Mobility as a Service businesses.” They looked similar to transparent cargo or shipping containers on wheels that grow and shrink in size depending on their specific task.
Toyota envisions these serving a variety of functions, from typical mobility services like ride-sharing and carpooling, to less-typical purposes like serving as mobile office and retail spaces, medical clinics, hotel rooms, and more. These vehicles would congregate in centrally located plazas within Toyota’s prototype city to sell goods or provide services.
The residencies would be equipped with smart home technology, such as in-home robotics to assist with daily living. “The homes will use sensor-based AI to check occupants’ health, take care of basic needs and enhance daily life, creating an opportunity to deploy connected technology with integrity and trust, securely and positively,” the company said.
Left unsaid, of course, was anything related to access to data, privacy, or nondisclosure agreements that residents would presumably need to sign before agreeing to live in Toyota’s up-jumped company town. Toyota already owns the land where it’s proposing to build, but selecting a population while complying with local residential rules will undoubtedly be complicated and not necessarily something the company would be well-suited to do.
Google is going through something similar with its Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto. Since it first announced in 2017, Sidewalk Labs has faced constant criticism, both from residents of Toronto and others who oppose urban profiteering by tech giants, about the opacity of its plans.
And that was just for a 12-acre lot.