April 20, 2017 10:00 am JST

Tiny self-driving vehicles will reshape our idea of mobility

New tech players look to make getting around cleaner and easier than ever

TETSUO NOZAWA, Nikkei Electronics staff writer

Xiaomi markets Ninebot Mini, a small and affordable type of gyropod. © Xiaomi

TOKYO Mention automated vehicles these days and you are apt to hear people rhapsodize (or worry) about driverless cars whizzing people to and from their homes and offices, as they dream of closing the door, punching their destination into a computer and going to sleep.

But a quieter revolution is happening behind the scenes. Ultracompact electric vehicles are being developed that will move people and goods around slowly, over relatively short distances. As the autonomous driving technology used in electric cars takes hold, the market for these smaller mobility devices is likely to be huge.

So far, that market is theoretical. But carmakers and other manufacturers are devising a variety of products with an eye on the future.

The electrification of cars has lowered barriers to entry into a segment that blends robotics, artificial intelligence, autonomous driving, home electronics and smartphone technologies. In the near future, "mobility of things" may be as much a catchphrase as internet of things is today, as everything from suitcases to chairs to shopping carts starts moving about on its own.

There are four key technologies behind autonomous electric cars: motors and batteries; spatial awareness and balance; communications and sensors; and AI.

Autonomous electric cars are likely to appear first on highways because it is relatively easy to install the technology needed on those roads. And although cars run at higher speeds on highways, they encounter fewer obstacles and variations in the environment to befuddle a robotic driver's brain. Basically there is less data to sort through, making the task easier.

On city streets, where traffic generally moves from 30kph to 80kph, autonomous driving becomes much harder: There are traffic signals to stop at, intersections to scan, motorcycles weaving in and out of lanes-- not to mention slow-moving bicycles and pedestrians occasionally appearing out of nowhere.

Once speeds drop below 30kph things get easier. Here, too, self-driving vehicles are likely to appear early because there are fewer technical hurdles and the odds of an accident ending in death or serious injury are lower.

Manufacturers are on the verge of rolling out self-driving cars and motorbikes. Among the competitors are Toyota Motor, Honda Motor and Nissan Motor of Japan; South Korea's Hyundai Motor; and Piaggio of Italy.

RIDE MY ROOMBA A handful of companies in other industries are looking for a piece of the action, either by making their own vehicles or components. Hopefuls include consumer electronics makers such as Panasonic and Starship Technologies, a company set up by the founders of Skype.

High capital investment costs make the conventional car business tough to break into. High vehicle speeds require costly and exacting safety tests. Because mini electric vehicles run more slowly, the business presents fewer barriers to entry for consumer electronics makers and others. Gadget makers have another edge when it comes to making pint-size vehicles: They are experts at miniaturization -- squeezing evermore components and functions into smaller and smaller spaces.

Some products already familiar to consumers incorporate yet another technology needed for driverless electric vehicles. The Roomba, a popular robotic vacuum made by iRobot of the U.S., cannot carry a person. But it can detect obstacles and changes in the surface of the floor and map its surroundings. That technology has improved over time.

The next step is to create a device capable of transporting a person or cargo -- an ultracompact, autonomous electric vehicle.

One important vehicle type is the gyropod, a generic term for a vehicle whose speed and balance are controlled by a gyroscopic sensor. The best known is perhaps the two-wheeled Segway, a self-balancing "personal transportation vehicle" made by the American company of the same name. Segway is the market leader in low-speed mini electric vehicles.

In all, the market for ultracompact electric vehicles is expected to reach $1.8 billion by 2021, with annual sales of up to 10 million units, according to U.S. market research company TechSci Research. Only about 100,000 Segway PTs have been sold since they came out in 2001. The $9,000 price tag and restrictions on their use in many countries has limited the size of the market. But with gyropods starting to appear for as little as 20,000 yen ($183) or so, that will change.

LIKE YOUR LEGS Mini electric vehicles are likely to be popular as a way of moving people in and out of doors seamlessly, at a leisurely pace. Most conventional vehicles move at speeds of 10kph or higher. Cars and even bicycles are not efficient ways of transporting people at walking speed. And drivers or riders must find a place to park; they cannot simply take their wheels indoors.

But most mini electric vehicles, especially gyropods, can start or stop without an accelerator or brake. People can "use them like their own legs," said Dai Akimoto, a Segway Japan executive who heads the company's marketing department.

Honda has come up with the Uni-Cub Beta, a gyropod that looks like a self-propelled stool. It is currently being used in demonstration tests in large, indoor spaces such as Haneda Airport in Tokyo. The company envisions people moving around their offices on the devices.

If and when they become commonplace, ultracompact electric vehicles will offer many benefits. They will help people who have trouble getting around -- the elderly, say, or the injured -- freeing them from having to lug groceries, for example. They are more energy efficient than cars for short trips and cheaper, making them a good alternative for children or those who cannot afford a car.

"Freedom of movement is important to a fulfilling life," said Haruo Ishida, a professor at the University of Tsukuba who studies transportation systems. "The more means of transportation we have, the better."

The elderly and people with physical disabilities are already using electric scooters that move slowly and are allowed on sidewalks. But, said Ishida, "The scooters occasionally run off the sidewalk, causing a number of users to die each year." These scooters can be made safer and more versatile if they are coupled with self-driving technology.

FUEL SIPPERS Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism likes mini electric vehicles for their energy efficiency. About 70% of car trips are 10km or less, according to the ministry.

A four-wheel, ultracompact, single-seat vehicle that weighs just over 400kg, such as Toyota's COMS, consumes only one-sixth as much energy as a conventional gasoline-powered car, the ministry said.

In addition to the market for personal transport, these vehicles are a potential boon to the logistics industry, helping them solve the "last mile" problem -- that is, getting goods from a warehouse to customers using as little fuel and muscle as possible.

"Often only young workers can manually load and unload goods, adding to the labor shortage we are seeing," said Tomihiro Kura, deputy chief of the management planning department at Japan Airport Terminal, where demonstration tests are being conducted on delivery robots and other devices.

Ultracompact electric vehicles could also slash fuel consumption by allowing people to transport heavy items over short distances. Many people will drive less if they do not have to carry things themselves.

At the moment, most of these electric vehicles require a human driver. Only a handful are equipped with AI and autonomous driving technologies. But there are already simple devices in use that follow people around to help with loading and carrying. Chairs, carts and suitcases that can move under their own power may soon be popping up all over.

For that to happen, manufacturers will have to overcome big legal and psychological barriers, as well as technical ones. In 2015, there were several cases of batteries catching fire in low-end gyropod products, resulting in bans in some places. Vehicle makers are responding with safety warranties. On the legal front, Japan and Britain, for example, have strict traffic laws that limit how mini electric vehicles can be used.

Simply put, regulators and buyers must be persuaded ultracompact electric vehicles are safe if they are to fulfill their promise. Assuming these kinks can be worked out, people everywhere may be getting from point A to B more easily and efficiently than ever before.

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