Travel | ON THE ROAD

Toyota flies toward the future

The Winglet is smaller, cuter and more fun than a Segway, but what can you do with it?

by Stephen Clemenger

Toyota aims to take us on a magic- carpet ride in mobility in about two years with its new vehicle called the Winglet. The device is the latest addition to the company’s range of “partner robots” — concept vehicles whose purpose is to explore future forms of personal transportation. Toyota believes that robots will be a part of its core business by 2020, along with a switch from gasoline power to electric power.

The Winglet started life seven years ago as a Sony Corporation project before Toyota purchased it during a round of restructuring at Sony in March 2007. Of the team that completed the project — adding Toyota’s partner-robot technology and finalizing the styling — two were ex-Sony and five were on loan from Sony.

To see if the Winglet really will take mankind in a new direction of mobility, I took one for a test drive this month. This is not the first two-wheeled balancing scooter the world has seen. The Segway was launched in a blaze of publicity in 2001 but has not been the success it was expected to be, with just 30,000 units (costing ¥1 million each) sold so far — mainly in America.

There are, though, major differences between the two vehicles, and one of them is the term “robot.” This refers to the Winglet’s ability to move about autonomously — either obediently following you or another Winglet in front. You also ride much lower on the Winglet, so you do not get the same “standing on a chair” feeling as with the Segway. Toyota even says that on the Winglet you occupy less area than someone walking!

Getting on the Winglet is similar to getting on a pogo stick. After first pressing the “get on” button, you hold the center handle and put a foot on one of the platforms. Then you put the other foot on the opposite platform. Your natural instinct is to find the center of balance, but the Winglet does that for you. You quickly realize that it really does stay upright on two wheels, but you keep looking down to check.

The closest riding experience that using the Winglet can be likened to is skiing or skating, but without the undignified falls. To turn, you simply lean in the desired direction (and tilt the center stick on the L version of the device that I tried). The platforms and the wheels under your feet tilt in the desired direction. You can even lift your inside leg and push with your outside leg — the exact same technique used with skiing and skating. Mastering this will enable you to ride the Winglets designed for intermediate and advanced riders. These two “hands-free” versions do not have a waist-high handle; there is a knee-high support on what is dubbed the M-version and an ankle-high support on the S version.

The “magic” bit of this trip is the way the Winglet responds to your desire to move forward or backward. Just like the Segway, your degree of lean controls both your speed and direction. But the Winglet is so sensitive that it seems you just need to think “forward” or “backward” or “stop” and your wish is granted. This gave me an idea — could I negotiate a slalom course set up for the device going backward? After some deft touches of the “rotation” button (it turns the wheels in opposite directions and you rotate on the spot), I managed two runs of the course in reverse, and it wasn’t nearly as difficult nor as scary as I had imagined.

At the moment the Winglet is just an expensive toy. It is not for sale and Toyota has at least two years of testing and development to do. While it is fantastic fun to ride, the Winglet seems to be of limited use as a means of transport. Youths might get a kick out of it, but it will be too expensive if the Segway is anything to go by. Senior citizens might make use of the vehicle’s 5 to 10 km range, but cost and practicality might hinder their progress. Also, Toyota does say you can carry things on the Winglet, but the most I have seen anyone holding with the “hands free” version so far is a drinks tray. There are plans to test the Winglet for commuting from one airport terminal to another. But the device’s maximum speed of 6 kph is slower than a stroll on the moving walkways.

And where can the Winglet be used? As with the Segway in America, rules will have to be changed to allow it to be ridden in public areas. The law in Japan states that being “powered” makes it a scooter, forcing it onto the road. But it is far too slow and has no mechanical brakes, making it illegal anywhere except on private land. Concessions could be made for the elderly or disabled, but standing up all the time may not always be possible for them.

Asked about these limitations, a Toyota representative was confident the Winglet would be able to be used in public areas in the future.

Until that happens, though, the Winglet is just a fun way of whizzing about in a designated area. Perhaps someone could market “Winging it on a Winglet” — riding around in any chosen direction with no plan or purpose. Maybe you could join a group and program your machine to follow the one in front, in a kind of “Winglet conga.” Its ability to negotiate inclines and mildly rough terrain might see the Winglet turning up in parks and sports grounds. Marketed as a recreational vehicle, it seems much more likely to succeed in finding a place for itself in the pantheon of transportation options than the Segway.

Toyota will give a number of lucky people the chance to ride a Winglet from Sept. 13-15 at the Toyota Amlux venue (www.amlux.jp), a 7-min. walk from Ikebukuro JR Station or 5 minutes from from Higashi Ikebukuro Station. The catch is that your name will have to be picked out of a hat if you are to get your own magic-carpet ride.