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Tokyo Motor Show embraces drone races and flying cars

Space exploration tech and immersive sports experiences added to woo visitors

Panasonic's Autonomous Living Space Cabin enables passengers to relax as if they are in a living room. (Photo by Kei Higuchi)

TOKYO -- The Tokyo Motor Show kicks off on Thursday with a new format meant to make the traditional vehicle showcase into an expo that holds drone races, shows off a flying car and presents a future in which commuters move seamlessly between the road and sky.

Despite the show's attendance being on the decline for years now, the organizer expects 1 million visitors this year. It is an ambitious target that would represent a 30% increase from what the previous motor show, in 2017, drew.

The 12-day Tokyo Motor Show has an "Open Future" theme. It will feature a series of new mobility vehicles and services. The Future Expo area will have more than 90 exhibits, including a "flying car" from Japanese electronics manufacturer NEC, which is a 148-kg, 3.9-meter long helicopter-like prototype. NEC aims to license the technology to third parties, including Japanese drone maker Cartivator.

Toyota Motor's upcoming Manned Pressurised Rover, developed together with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, will also be presented at the show. The hydrogen-powered car is expected to be launched by 2029 for human space exploration.

Panasonic will show off its Autonomous Living Space Cabin, a self-driving concept car with a customizable interior in which passengers can relax as if they are in a living room. The cabin can also transform itself into an office, with windows being used as video conference equipment or touch screens.

The Future Expo will also hold several e-motorsports contests, including one for under 18-year-old players from Japan and another for the world's top players.

The Future Expo area of the Tokyo Motor Show will feature a flying car from Japanese electronics manufacturer NEC. (Photo courtesy of NEC)

The Future Expo will also introduce a new way to enjoy sports. NTT will deploy multiple 4K cameras to transmit high-definition images in real-time to a super wide screens, delivering an immersive experience to spectators who will be made to feel as if they were in a stadium.

The 1.5-km Open Road, which will run between the motor show's two main venues, will become a demonstration course for visitors to try electrified kick scooters and other small personal mobility "vehicles." Berlin-based Wind Mobility, which offers a kickboard sharing service in 20 cities around the world, will present its latest electrified model, the Wind 3.0. The scooter can go 60 km between full charges.

Wind Mobility's latest electrified scooter can go 60 km between full charges. (Photo by Eri Sugiura)

At its booth, Toyota will place a bet on its vision for future vehicles. No commercial vehicles will be exhibited. Instead, the automaker will focus on presenting mobility concepts, including a car that enables those inside to talk with a doctor or have a medical checkup. Also on exhibit will be a "magic" broom on wheels that begins going when an operator straddles it.

Toyota will also exhibit its autonomous, electric e-Palette vehicles, made together with Tier IV, a Nagoya-based autonomous driving startup. The vehicles will ferry athletes around at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

"Because people have some shared mobility, humans want to possess more personal mobility," said Akio Toyoda, the automaker's president, who initially appeared at a motor show media event as a digital avatar. "Horses are irreplaceable to their riders," he went on, adding that in the future "shared carriages and your own favorite horse" will coexist.

Toyoda then presented the e-Racer, a two-seat vehicle that is designed to emphasize fun to drive. Through virtual reality glasses, the car overlays the owner's "ideal landscape" while commuting.

Toyota says its e-Racer puts the fun back in driving with the help of virtual reality glasses. (Photo by Kei Higuchi)

Toyoda is also chair of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, which organizes the motor show. He had previously spoken of his determination to breathe new life into the show. "We want to offer a theme park to the entire family," he said.

"We would like to present not only cars but a lifestyle of the future that excites everybody," Toyoda added.

Starting this year, students of high-school age and below will be admitted to the show free of charge.

The more than 60-year-old event has been shedding visitors since 2013, when 902,800 people attended. Big name U.S.-based auto groups including General Motors pulled out of the event in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. German automakers Audi, BMW and Volkswagen followed suit this year.

However, the number of exhibiting companies is expected to increase by 25% to 192 this year.

Toyoda says collaboration with other industries will be essential to the show's future relevance, referring to the Consumer Electronics Show in the U.S., which manages to lure many manufacturers as a place to unveil their latest products, including automakers like Toyota.

"The Tokyo Motor Show needs to change its model," Toyoda said, or risk becoming obsolete. He added that the event has already become a less important forum in terms of promoting car sales.

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