TOKYO -- When Four Link Systems set out to develop an electric car, it decided its goal would be to "beat Toyota." About five years on, the Japanese startup's vehicle is nearly ready for prime time, and it looks like it emerged straight out of the classic Japanese anime series "Mobile Suit Gundam."
That is no accident: It was designed by the man who created the series' iconic "mecha" robots.
Soon, the car the company calls the Earth-1 is expected to gain ministry approval to run on public roads, opening the way to actual sales.
The compact chassis is capable of folding itself up, creating something akin to a mecha cockpit. Why the wild design? When you are chasing one of the world's biggest automakers, creativity is your only hope.
Before starting the project, Four Link had experience conducting research on electronic control units for automakers. It also took part in a robot project led by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, along with Toyota Motor and other participants.
Like many other ventures, Four Link saw electric cars as a growth avenue. The field is relatively easy to enter, as long as you have basic parts like motors and batteries.
"We'd worked on control units, design assistance and robots as part of our business," Four Link President Hiroomi Kinoshita said. The next step was to pursue "ultracompact mobility."
"The first challenge," Kinoshita continued, "was to build a car that can beat a Toyota." But since there was no way to compete with the auto giant on performance, cost or brand power, he decided to focus on design and came up with the idea of a robotlike vehicle.
Kinoshita asked Kunio Okawara, the "Gundam" designer, "to do anything to make the vehicle look like a robot -- like drawing a face or adding a head."
Okawara liked the idea of a robot zipping down the street and drew up some sketches.
Still, while design was the heart of the project, there were plenty of technical hurdles to clear.
As there were no existing mechanisms for folding the chassis, Four Link developed special motors and actuators from scratch. On the road, the vehicle is steered with a regular wheel; a joystick controls the chassis transformation.
Along the way, Four Link struck a balance between making the vehicle look and work like a robot, without running afoul of vehicle regulations.
Stuff of dreams
A concept model Four Link exhibited at an auto show wowed engineers working for major automakers, like Toyota and Honda Motor. "I want to make a car like this, I want to give it a try," one said.
"As cars mature, [we're] realizing a dream that everyone once dreamed of," Kinoshita said, referring to youthful fantasies of the vehicles of the future.
Four Link has priced its electric car at 8 million yen ($70,494) -- close to what you would pay for one of Toyota's Lexus luxury sedans. Orders are already coming in from buyers in Japan and abroad; an overseas airport operator wants to use the vehicle for a ride-sharing service.
"In terms of scarcity," Kinoshita said, "it beats the Lexus."