Eric Killorin

Sun Dec 01 2013 22:55:57 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

The Tokyo Motor Show (through Dec. 1) unfailingly offers the most outlandish concept cars on the auto-show calendar, whimsical mobile-bots that would never in a million years be built. The i-Road isn’t one of them.

Toyota is producing the first of hundreds of these all-electric tandem-seat three wheelers and will be setting them loose, for example, in the streets of Grenoble, France, next year as part of an urban car-sharing experiment called Ha:Mo (that is short for Harmonious Mobility).

The Toyota i-Road is one of several highly evolved, micro-commuter EV prototypes that Japanese auto makers featured at the Tokyo show this year, and it is a fair example of their anxieties. If current trends hold, the megacities of Asia and South America will be asked to absorb tens of millions more cars and trucks in the next decade. Various species of smaller-than cars, in two-, three- and four-wheeled morphologies, will have to evolve to fit where the conventional automobile won’t.

The three-wheeled i-Road is narrow and tall. Toyota notes it is only as wide as a large motorcycle, and four can fit in the parking space required for a Camry. The driver seating is , like a single-seat race car or an enclosed scooter. A passenger seat has been wedged behind the driver, but it is best thought of as a parcel shelf.

It is a coupe, I guess, with doors on either side of the raked canopy glass. The driver lands in the minimalist seat, about 10 inches off the ground, and grabs hold of a vaguely aeronautic steering yoke. Indeed, the i-Road experience is much like sitting in a glider cockpit: minimal central LCD display, lightweight seating, plastic skin all around, panoramic outward vision.

The i-Road uses two torque-rich 2.7-hp (2-kW) in-wheel electric motors to move at speeds up to 28 mph. That is the maximum allowable in Europe for vehicles not requiring a driver’s license to operate. Toyota execs say a 37-mph version will be available in Japan. The lithium-ion battery pack is good for about 30 miles of range.

Despite its size, the i-Road will provide many of the usual auto amenities, including an audio system, a windshield wiper and that gemstone of a headlamp. In addition to the three-point harness, an air bag will be fitted to later prototypes. Let’s hope you don’t need that.

What happens next is the source of the i-Road’s innovative charm. The trike is steer-by-wire, with guidance inputs digitally translated into the steering angle at the back wheel; meanwhile, geared actuators articulate the front wheels, and their fender enclosures, up and down, causing the buggy to lean into corners like a downhill skier shifting body weight to the ski.

This Active Lean technology relies on the supple algorithmic interplay between the rear-wheel steering and front-wheel articulation, allowing lean angles approaching 30 degrees, depending on speed and steering input. If, for example, a driver has the i-Road fully heeled over and suddenly slows, the i-Road—having consulted its onboard gyroscope—will pull itself upright to avoid tipping. The independent wheel articulation also allows the buggy to traverse sloped pavement, like a parking garage ramp, while the gondola remains level.

At very slow speeds the rear wheel casters like a shopping-cart wheel, allowing the i-Road to turn in less than a 10-foot circle.

Like other journalists invited to drive the i-Road in Japan last week, I had a mere three minutes behind the wheel. It was enough to know the i-Road moves unlike anything else on wheels, with a surprisingly intuitive driving experience. If you have ever leaned a bicycle or a scooter into a curve, you would find the i-Road completely familiar.

It is also a blast to ride, or drive… Operate? The steering software follows commands fluently, and going through a series of S turns, the i-Road telemarks with absolutely no drama. “It will never tip, so feel free to drive it how you like,” assured chief engineer Makoto Morita.

Should Toyota build the i-Road en masse? “We haven’t been able to decide either,” said Mr. Morita, with a laugh. The i-Road is aimed at the contentious urban centers of Asia, but it isn’t hard to imagine them waggling around Santa Monica or Martha’s Vineyard. Talk about a concept car.

Honda Uni-Cub: The Uni-Cub reminds us that for the Japanese auto industry, mobility means more than automobiles. For a nation with one of the world’s fastest-aging populations, getting around at pedestrian speeds is a social concern and huge potential market opportunity for car makers. Riders on the Uni-Cub look like they are sitting on the beak of a well-fed penguin. The padded seat is 24.4 inches high. The stubby, tuxedoed body conceals Honda’s “Omni Traction Drive System” with automatic balance control. Riders merely shift their weight to steer and stop the Uni-Cub. With a top speed of 3.7 mph, the Uni-Cub is designed for indoor office and commercial environments.

Nissan New Mobility: If any company has earned its bones in the electric-vehicle market, it is Nissan, the maker of the first mass-produced EV, the Leaf. But the quadruped here is a Nissan-skinned version of a Renault Twizy EV (Renault is Nissan’s Alliance partner), a tandem-seat micro-commuter weighing 1,100 pounds, powered by a 17-hp electric motor with 42 pound-feet of torque, good for a top speed of about 50 mph and a nominal range of 62 miles. But it isn’t really about the car. It is about sharing. With the New Mobility Concept, Nissan will study urban car-sharing strategies, such as “two-mode EV car sharing,” where the car is used “as a private commuter vehicle in the mornings and evenings, and as a corporate car during business hours, contributing to the revitalization of communities with improved mobility in both urban and tourist locations,” according to a company news release.

HONDA MC-Beta: Japan’s government is considering how to privilege a new class of “micro-sized mobility products,” a vehicle category that meets Europe’s rules for quadricycles (880 pounds max curb weight and no more than 20 hp). The Honda MC-Beta was one of several such vehicles at the Tokyo show’s “Smart Mobility City” pavilion. It’s a tube-frame, plastic-bodied “micro-sized, short-distance EV commuter,” as Honda sees it, with 50-mile range, a nominal 15 hp and a top speed of about 45 mph. The MC-Beta is in early trials in Japan, assigned the unsexy task of exploring “desirable usage patterns and needs for micro-sized mobility products as a part of a social system that will help promote city planning and address issues related to transportation of people in each community.”

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