Travel | ON THE ROAD

Will personal mobility allow personal choice?

Intelligent technology in PMV concepts may mean drivers become mere passengers

by Stephen Clemenger

If you had the choice, would you drive your own car or just sit back and let the car drive you? This is a question someone may ask you in the not too distant future — if Toyota, Nissan and other manufacturers’ concept cars make it into production.

Due both to technological trends and government pressure, these companies will have the ability to take some of the driving decisions away from the driver. The type of vehicle that will benefit most from this technology is the so-called personal-mobility vehicle (PMV). And it is Toyota that has been most prolific in this area, so far producing four different concept PMVs over the past five years.

Toyota started this quest to produce a vehicle that is more than a bike but less than a car at the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show, with the breakthrough PM. Best described as a “life pod on wheels,” the PM had the unique ability to change its height, dependent on speed. So within the city, it stood tall and upright for both economy of space and maneuverability. But when accelerating toward highway speeds, it stretched out and reclined the driver’s pod to the ideal aerodynamic position. At these highway speeds, it was proposed that the PM would have the ability to follow the leader, thus forming an orderly train of co-destination drivers.

Toyota’s second PMV was called the i-unit, built for the World Expo in 2005. Although quite similar in concept to the PMV, the i-unit was a far more basic and simplified version, with the driver exposed to the elements instead of cocooned in a pod. But it still retained the height-changing ability and amazing maneuverability in its upright mode.

During the daily live shows at the World Expo, the i-unit was shown both driven and driverless within Toyota’s pavilion. Programmed to follow a predetermined route, its exoskeleton structure incorporated many LEDs, which changed both in color and pulsation to music.

Unfortunately, I never got to see that live show, but recently I did something even better — I drove an i-unit. This experience can be best described as steering your outdoor camping chair around while quietly performing turns, sweeps and pirouettes. To achieve this, you simply push down a ball-like lever under your right hand to move forward, and pull it up and back to brake to a stop. Moving the same lever left or right steers the vehicle — quite intuitive really. The only thing that was difficult during my test drive was to remember the vast difference in the size of the turning circle between the upright city mode and the laid-back highway mode.

Toyota’s third PMV, called the i-swing, was a star of the 2005 Tokyo Motor show. Smaller than the previous two, it had only three wheels and could also perform a two-wheeled balancing trick. It did this so that the driver could become more people-friendly in a pedestrian environment, being much more compact and slightly higher. For the normal road mode, it reverted to three wheels and leaned into the corners just like a skier or motorcyclist. The driver could even steer it by using two foot-mounted pedals, giving an even greater sensation of skiing.

But the i-swing also crucially had a degree of intelligence. It was programmed to learn the habits and preferences of its user — where they went and what they listened to. Again, like the PM and i-unit, it used LEDs as a form of expression and also for its visual presentation.

The latest addition to the PMV stable is the i-REAL, which was shown at last year’s Tokyo Motor Show. In the i-REAL, the genre’s talent for matching its size and shape to the riding environment has been inherited. So in pedestrian areas you sit upright up to 7 kph. But when traveling faster on designated vehicle roads you are reclined back up to i-REAL’s maximum speed of 30 kph.

The driving experience feels like sitting in a reclining armchair and controlling how much of the world flies by and in what direction. The controls are simple: You have just two cell-phone-size objects, one in each hand. By pushing one or both down, you move forward, and by pulling them back you bring the vehicle to a stop. Tilting them either left or right steers the i-REAL in that direction — all very natural to do and easily learned in about five minutes.

What was a bit disconcerting was the lack of any barrier between you and the onward rushing ground just beneath your feet. It reminded me of being driven down a hill by a friend on his new bicycle while sitting on the handlebars. If you stopped quickly, you feel you would continue on without the vehicle.

However, I thoroughly enjoyed driving the i-REAL, and it was also comforting to know there were many features that would help the driver to have a safe journey. One of those was a proximity sensor, which automatically braked the i-REAL in case anything got in its way. It would also only move forward once an “active” button was pressed. One quite surreal feature was the dancing mode: At the press of a button, the i-REAL performed a good impression of a novice disco dancer — without a passenger.

The next PMV, the fifth, will be with us in about a year’s time at the 2009 Tokyo Motor Show. So expect an even higher level of sophistication — but still with that space-changing ability to match its size to driving circumstances.

What we could also see is an even greater level of intelligence to an almost robotic level. So it could be similar to last year’s Nissan PIVO2 robotic agent — a kind of spy in the cabin that helped you with every driving decision. Or even Nissan’s latest robot car, the BR23C, which mimics the avoidance reactions of a bumblebee.

So if Toyota’s PMV-5 does display a high level of relationship with its driver, then we might well have come full circle in our personal choice of transport. For the PMV-5 could even match the intelligence level of the horse — a means of personal transport that served us well for thousands of years.

However, unlike the horse, this time we will have a switch so that we can turn off the assistance — or even perhaps increase it for novice rider-drivers.

This intelligent technology may save drivers from making an error in judgment on the road, but it should still be up to you — it’s your own personal choice!