A hands-on look at Toyota’s crazy, and not-so-crazy mini-BEVs

Ngatsu-san shows off the recliner. Glass frosted at the touch  of a button (no Photoshop) – (c) Bertel Schmitt

Over the past few days, I had the opportunity for taking a peek at a few BEVs to be shown at the upcoming Tokyo Motor Show. In case you already hold flight tickets to Tokyo, stop reading. And in a further attempt to reduce the readership of this story, let me point out that you may likewise cease reading if your interest in BEVs hovers around who’s faster on the drag strip, or higher up in Wikipedia’s List of Nürburgring Nordschleife lap times. This story would not be for you.

The peeking for this story happened at Toyota. The motto of the car show is “Open Future,” but for a few of these vehicles, the future is quite near. Public, or at least publicized sentiment has been quickly shifting from cars to EVs, and now from EVs to no cars at all, or at least to vehicles with limited impact. All vehicles I could preview are going in that direction.

Available next year: Toyora’s subminiature-BEV

A few OEMs will show electric “Kei car” minivehicles next week, but Toyota will out-mini them all by showing  a battery-electric sub-Kei car that fits where no minivehicle will go. It is 405mm narrower and 700 mm shorter than the already pint-sized Japanese Kei. With two seats, a max speed of 60 km/h, and a range of 100km, the subminiature minivehicle  is squarely targeted at city-dwellers. Currently, the (at least at this moment) unnamed vehicle falls under Japanese Kei car regulations, but Toyota hopes to convince its government to create a special category with relaxed licensing, parking, and insurance requirements, told me Toyota’s Akihiro Yanaka, Group Manager at the company’s ZEV Factory. Asked about chances for exports to Europe or the U.S., Yanaka wasn’t so sure.  The vehicle could fit into U.S. Neighborhood Electric Vehicle standards, and similar regulations in Europe and China, I’d say.

Office chair, meet daybed: Toyota’s capsule-hotel-on-wheels

The next car I could inspect was an extremely interesting and charmingly whacko thing currently dubbed “Ultra compact BEV Concept model for Business.” It is a car, capsule-hotel, workplace, and a possible opportunity for extracurricular activities, all rolled into one.  It is a two-seater, with one seat more like an office chair and the other like a comfortable recliner perfect for, well, sleeping. No dashboard takes up space, all instruments are projected into a heads-up display in the windshield. In non-drive mode, steering wheel and levers fold away into a little side compartment. In work mode, a little desk for a laptop unfolds, and voila, you are in business. In relax-, or extracurricular activity mode, the driver changes office chair for the recliner, and at the touch of a button, the windows are electronically frosted  for total privacy.

Broadside. – (c) Bertel Schmitt

Car shows often are the stage for off-the-wall ideas, but as crazy as this concept may sound, there is nothing in it that could not be built today, confirmed Toyota’s UX designer Naoki Ngatsu, who led me around the vehicle, pushing buttons on a small console that made the mad vehicle rotate through sundry modes, right in front of my eyes.

Stand-up performer – (c) Bertel Schmitt

If these two minier-than-minivehicles are not low impact enough for you, do not despair.  Toyota will be showing EVs that can fit in a broom closet. There is a standup-type conveyance (picture a teensy platform with bicycle-type handlebars and an electric motor) ready to zip you around at extremely moderate speeds. A sit-down version is targeted at a less sprightly demographic, and for the (in Japan) bulging upper end of the age distribution is a motor than can be latched to front of a wheelchair.

Yanaka took me through a few PowerPoints that read like written by Horace Dediu of Asymco fame.  The charts were full of “shift focus from the conventional idea of manufacturing BEVs and having customers buy them,” full of “unbundling,” and “new business models.”  Details of those business models were still withheld, likewise undisclosed remain any detailed technical specs. “Those are are concepts,” I was told, “and specs can change.”

Some of the products will morph into real commercial products quite quickly. The subminiature BEV is planned for release by late next year, I was told, and the stand up BEVlet will come out of its broom closet at that time as well, Yanaka said. The sit-down and wheelchair-attach types should arrive in the year thereafter. No production date was given or even hinted at for the multi-modal business and love hotel on wheels combo, but I urged everyone of Toyota with the patience to listen to build the thing, STAT. Please do the same when at the show. They show those to gauge public acceptance.

Finally, we sometimes may think that Toyota engineers are humorless stick-in-the-muds in black business suits. Utterly wrong. Most of them are lovingly nutty. Totota is the crunchy outside, soft and tasty inside OEM.

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