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Toyota’s Olympic Fleet Won’t Go to Waste

5 February 2021

Even in the context of last year’s many delays, cancellations and closures, the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was an enormous blow. And despite IOC officials’ insistence that the games will go ahead, rumours continue to circulate that either Japan’s ongoing COVID outbreak or their government’s growing hesitancy will put an end to any competition this year. 

If it doesn’t go ahead in July 2021, Tokyo will be only the fourth Summer Games to be cancelled in modern Olympic history — the other three (1916, 1940 and 1944) being casualties of WWI & WWII.

In August 2019 Toyota announced what their contribution would entail as Tokyo 2020’s transport partner: a fleet of 3,700 ‘electrified’ vehicles to transport fans, athletes, and staff around what was then planned to be an immense celebration in an already crowded city.

This fleet would include 850 all-electric EVs, 500 fuel cell EVs, and a fleet of electric scooters, wheelchairs, and specially-designed transport vehicles with such inventive and attractive names as the ‘APM’ (accessible people mover), the ‘e-Palette’ and the ‘Concept-i’.

The e-Palette
The Concept-i

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But it wasn’t until late March 2020, about four months prior to when the games were supposed to begin, that the decision to postpone Tokyo 2020 was made official. Over the following months, as Japan’s tally of daily COVID cases hovered in the 200-500 range, Toyota were left with an idle EV fleet that needed to be put to use.

Conveniently, Toyota had recently commenced work on “Woven City“, an artificial city near Mt Fuji designated as a testing ground for their autonomous vehicle technology division.

Over the course of 2020, Woven City was stocked with a suite of experimental EVs formerly designated for the Tokyo Olympic fleet. Toyota executive Keiji Yamamoto said in December 2020,

“We felt it was necessary to have a city where we could actually operate e-Palette vehicles. So, at this year’s CES, we announced Woven City, […] an ever-evolving city that is also a living laboratory. Here, we will be able to learn a variety of things by operating e-Palette vehicles [which were] supposed to have been operated at the now-postponed Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

The aforementioned e-Palette is a cuboid electric vehicle with capacity for up to 20 passengers. Applying Toyota’s Autono-MaaS (i.e. ‘Autonomous Mobility as a Service’) technology, the e-Palette was intended to transport staff and athletes between the Olympic Village and competition areas during Tokyo 2020.

Also in December, after several months of unexpected idle testing time, Toyota announced their intention to develop the e-Palette for public and commercial transport applications beyond Woven City. Whether the e-Palette can match Japan’s existing public transport remains to be seen, but it’s not hard to imagine how a self-driving Rubik’s cube might be useful in cities that lack Tokyo’s famously efficient rail and bus network.

Of course, Toyota aren’t the only ones eying the potential of self-driving vehicles and autonomous mass transit. Tesla are famously aiming to be the first automaker to offer full self-driving in all their vehicles, and have been offering it as a paid option on new vehicle purchases for several years now. Customers can pay up at purchase (currently $10,100 AUD) and (according to Tesla) they won’t have to pay again to access full self-driving capability when (or if) it is made available in a future software update.

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Likewise, such corporate heavyweights as Uber, Google, and Lyft are investing heavily in a swathe of their own technologies that may offer the key to level 5 (i.e., full self-driving) autonomous vehicles.

If Toyota are leveraging their Olympic fleet to test and refine their own technology — which recent announcements suggest they are — then this race is very likely to rise to a boil in the next few years.

So, whether Tokyo 2020 goes ahead or not, the Woven City will offer a home to Toyota’s 3700 electrified vehicles intended for the games and, hopefully, accelerate the world on the home straight toward fully autonomous transport.