In late February, Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda gathered with a handful of Shinto priests in a white tent at the foot of Mount Fuji. The group prayed — as is customary when embarking on new builds in Japan — for the smooth completion of a new city to be designed and built by the world’s largest automaker.
At the site of a recently shuttered factory, Toyoda commented on the significance of replacing a plant that’s churned out cars since the ‘60s with a 175-acre community to test future technologies such as autonomous vehicles. “It’s a new chapter in our story and in our industry,” Toyoda, grandson of the carmaker’s founder, said in an online video commemorating the groundbreaking.
By 2040, a fleet of more than 30 million self-driving vehicles are estimated to be driving on roads globally. Yet today, even the most advanced autonomous features are limited and require driver supervision. Executives and industry experts say the missing link is cities, which need to be wired to funnel massive amounts of data to cars in order for them to meaningfully drive themselves.
That’s why Toyota is building its sensor-laden “Woven City” from the ground up a two-hour drive outside of Tokyo. There, Toyota will test autonomous vehicles for transport, deliveries and mobile shops alongside the city’s hand-picked residents as a kind of living laboratory. When construction is completed in 2024, it will seek to offer a model of what urban centers around the world could look like in the age of autonomous transport. Doing so, of course, will require convincing a broader population.
Right now, limited automated driving is achieved by having sensors onboard cars draw information from their environment. Feeding such information back to vehicles will be “the next big leap forward,” says Hiroki Kuriyama, senior vice president of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. Japan’s top telecommunications company is partnering with Toyota to develop the technology needed for autonomous car-supporting smart hubs.
The idea, Kuriyama says, is to use sensors and cameras scattered throughout roads, traffic lights and buildings — and perhaps even data from mobile phones — to gather information on everything from pedestrian traffic to precipitation. That massive data stream will then be processed via optical networks, data centers and the cloud to create a digital “twin,” or mirror image, of the living city. The virtual, synthesized data can then be fed to cars, letting them safely navigate through the real world without human intervention, according to Kuriyama.
The name Woven City is a nod to Toyota’s origins as a manufacturer of automatic looms, and refers to the stitching together of software, services, vehicles and streets. All that will guide the company’s autonomous “E-palettes” — transparent shipping container-like vehicles that can accommodate as many as 20 passengers with seats that fold up so that the interior can be re-purposed. E-palettes will run through the city using autonomous vehicle lanes, providing shared transportation, delivering packages and acting as mobile storefronts.
To bolster its autonomous technology, Toyota announced on Tuesday a $550 million deal to buy Lyft Inc.’s self-driving operations. Woven Planet Holdings Inc., Toyota’s tech unit responsible for automated driving technologies and the Woven City project, will gain 300 self-driving division employees and a plethora of data from the ride-hailing company.
Together the two “can create a scalable solution that brings mobility beyond what we’re seeing today,” James Kuffner, Toyota’s chief digital officer and head of Woven Planet, said in a briefing with reporters. “Woven City will allow us to try out different city infrastructure. If cars and cities can communicate with each other in a smart way, I think we can build safer systems.”
Beyond futuristic mobility options, the city will also feature smart homes that take out trash and restock refrigerators automatically, according to Toyota. The entire ecosystem will also be powered by hydrogen. It’s a big and ambitious bet for the automaker — although no investment figures have been disclosed, costs are likely to run upwards of a billion dollars. To help fund the project, Toyota said last month it would sell as much as 500 billion yen ($4.6 billion) in “Woven Planet Bonds,” the biggest such issue at the time to be used in part for the new city.
As neither a real estate nor construction company, it may seem strange that an automaker is building a city, says Nakanishi Research Institute head Takaki Nakanishi. But for Toyota and others, the push into city development is deeply practical, he says. As cars grow increasingly connected, they become part of a larger value chain that includes homes and urban infrastructure. That’s a new potential source of profit for carmakers, in a global autos market that’s projected to plateau over coming decades.
“Mobility, living and cities are going to become connected, and control of that standardized software, that’s what everyone wants,” Nakanishi says.
Still, for companies such as Toyota and NTT, introducing smart city platforms in locations outside of Woven City will mean overcoming substantial aversions to the idea of mining residents’ data. Google parent Alphabet Inc. attempted to create a smart city — equipped with sensors that support autonomous cars — on Toronto’s waterfront, throwing millions of dollars and years of lobbying at the project before officially shuttering it a year ago. The stated reason was the pandemic’s effect on real-estate prices, but before that, the project had faced years of opposition from privacy activists.
From a purely technological standpoint, bringing the Woven City’s platform to existing cities will be possible in 5 to 10 years, according to NTT’s Kuriyama. “But what’s important is whether residents living in other cities will welcome those technologies,” he says. NTT has found success winning smart city contracts in the U.S. and Malaysia by promising that the data it collects remains the sole property of residents and local governments.
One interesting added touch that will help Toyota in its push to see Woven City technologies to market is the fact that the center will have residents, says Alexander Soley, an independent consultant focusing on autonomous vehicles. At first, the town will house about 360 visiting scientists, families, retirees and Toyota employees. That number will eventually rise into the thousands, according to Toyota. The company says it has received more than 3,000 applications from individuals and corporations in response to its call for collaborators.
“When it comes to new technologies, you can’t just release them and expect them to get picked up, they need to sit with people for a good period of time,” Soley says. In addition to privacy concerns, incidents such as the 2018 death of a pedestrian hit by a self-driving car in Arizona have led to a fair amount of fear of autonomous driving, he says. “Elderly families are a group targeted to live in the city. How will they feel about stepping foot in a car without a driver? That’s what Toyota’s trying to figure out.”
The development of smart cities and autonomous vehicles is well defined by something called the Gartner Hype Cycle, Soley says. The graphical representation of how technologies mature posits that new innovations are followed by a period of highly publicized success and failure stories. Eventually they reach a period where the discovery of more practical applications leads to mainstream adoption.
Kuriyama says NTT and Toyota aspire to eventually spread their smart city platform abroad. But first, they’ll focus on implementing it in rural areas of Japan where declining and rapidly aging populations stand to benefit from autonomous mobility options. NTT is also looking to implement the technologies it develops at the Woven City in Tokyo’s Shinagawa area, a bustling hub in the south of the city that’s close to Haneda International Airport.
Unlike in the privately owned Woven City, there will be challenges when introducing new technologies to an already existing and inhabited setting in Shinagawa, Kuriyama says. When it comes to autonomous driving and the city structures that support it, “charging forward with technology is important, but at the end it’s really about whether or not society accepts your philosophy,” Kuriyama says. “A smart city is just a city after all.”
(Updates with comments from Toyota’s chief digital officer.)