A City Tailor-Made for Self-Driving Cars? Toyota Is Building One

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.

An impression of Toyota’s Woven City.

Source: Toyota Motor Corp.

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.

Toyota Woven City

The city will feature smart homes that take out trash and restock refrigerators automatically. The entire ecosystem will also be powered by hydrogen.

Source: Toyota Motor Corp.

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.”

Toyota’s Self-Driving City

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.

Toyota Woven City

Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota, middle, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of Woven City in February 2021.

Source: Toyota Motor Corp.

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.