Image: Toyota global

Autonomous driving: cities of the future

Technology and Business

Phil Brown

Phil Brown

6-04-2020

       

If there’s one thing Japan is famous for, it’s infrastructure. From the thousands of miles of high-speed rail tracks that duck and weave between the mountainous terrain to the artificial islands that pepper the harbours of Tokyo and Osaka, Japan uses its land wisely to not only thrive, but to innovate.

It would be easy to lean on the already-excellent highways and bullet train networks that are fairly future-proof as it stands, but that kind of complacency doesn’t wash in Japan. You can get a sense of Japan’s commitment to futuristic infrastructure by looking at the under-construction

 

It doesn’t really come as a surprise that one of Japan’s heavyweights, Toyota, also has its own megaproject plans that echo the scale and magnitude of the Chūō line. Toyota’s vision, however, is even more futuristic than a train that floats several centimetres above the track.

 

the city layout for autonomy in Japan
Image: Toyota global

The Woven City

Entire cities built for the sole purpose of testing vehicles aren’t exactly a new concept in Japan, but Toyota’s ‘Woven City’, near Mount Fuji, is taking the test city to the next level.

 

Built over a 175-acre site, Woven City is designed to be way more than just a test track for new Toyota vehicles. The ‘city’ features not only a fully working road system (including highways) but also homes, businesses and retail spaces that are connected to the hydrogen-powered grid and will eventually be inhabited by 2,000 people.

 

The city will feature driverless taxis that ferry inhabitants to and from work, as well as to local train stations that will connect Woven City to the rest of Japan. The aim is also to incorporate other autonomous technologies into the street of Woven City, including delivery robots and personal mobility vehicles that cover the ‘last mile’ of the person or package’s journey.

 

Announced at CES 2020, Woven City comes at a time when Japan is aiming to regain their reputation for futuristic technologies and cutting-edge infrastructure. With China and South Korea hogging the megaproject and smart city limelight for the last couple of decades (China has essentially built the world’s largest high speed rail network in just over a decade and South Korea gained recognition for Song-Do, an ultra-smart city with tubes to whish away household waste and human-machine interfaces in every home). Japan will be keen to show off their latest technologies to the hundreds of thousands of visitors and media representatives who will be spending their 2021 summer in the country.

 

the woven city Japan
Image: Toyota global

The idea behind Woven City is to create a test bench for a whole host of technologies, including driverless technologies, hydrogen cell batteries, robotics, personal mobility and smart homes – a living proving ground for the next generation of smart technologies so to speak.

 

"Building a complete city from the ground up, even on a small scale like this, is a unique opportunity to develop future technologies, including a digital operating system for the infrastructure," says Akio Toyoda, current president of the Toyota Motor Corporation.

 

"With people, buildings and vehicles all connected and communicating with each other through data and sensors, we will be able to test connected AI technology, maximising its potential."

 

Woven City’s buildings and layout have been designed by Danish architecture office BIG and will be BIG’s first major project in Japan when it opens in 2021. Woven City will include the latest smart technologies and materials, but wood will feature heavily within each building, with sustainability and an element of tradition both at the forefront of the city’s design.

 

Autonomous driving just around the corner in Japan

Creating brand new cities designed to integrate fully with autonomous vehicles is one thing, but figuring out how to integrate driverless cars into existing cities is a whole new challenge. In Japan, this problem is being attacked sooner than many may expect.

 

Before the postponement of this years’ Olympic Games, both local and national government have  to allow driverless cars to roam the streets of Tokyo for a full week in July, just before the Games were due to kick-off.

 

This exhibition of driverless technologies had two objectives; to show-off Japan’s commitment to a driverless future, but also to see how driverless cars handle the busy streets of the world’s largest metropolitan area.

 

The test was due to see 28 companies sending their concepts out into the ‘wild’, with successful testing contributing to Japan’s vision to start selling driverless vehicles in 2025. This objective is certainly aspirational, but with such autonomy given to private organisations, this move really quantifies how determined Japan is to regain their crown from a technological city perspective, but also become a leader in driverless vehicles. Hopefully, this technological showcase will simply move back a year too, potentially giving engineers and designers even more time to get things right.

 

Have you experienced Japan’s driverless technologies in other cities? Share your experiences with us in the comments section or tell us if you plan to try and use a driverless taxi when you’re over there!

 

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