With our roads and public transport systems increasingly congested, has the time come for a new era of personal transportation? Dan Thisdell reports.

Anyone regularly suffering the horrors of travel in our congested cities would be forgiven for thinking they’d like to abandon traffic jams, parking tickets, timetables and delays in favour of scooting about quickly, easily and cheaply at times of their choosing.

That might sound like a dream, or even wishful thinking, but it does explain i-swing: a concept vehicle developed by Toyota in Japan.

Unveiled at the Tokyo motor show earlier this month, i-swing is described by its creator as ‘a new personal mobility vehicle that allows drivers to express their individuality’ and as a ‘single-person vehicle package [that] boasts an individual design with a “wearable” feeling’.

The electric-powered vehicle is, essentially, a voluptuously sculpted seat on three wheels. At relatively high speeds not specified by Toyota, it operates on all three wheels; but it can also travel at walking speeds by retracting the front wheel and rising up on its two rear wheels, putting the occupant — or wearer — in a nearly standing position and using gyroscopic balancing to stay upright.

Steering is by joystick or leaning on the footpad, much as a skier steers, and Toyota proposes that the i-swing uses artificial intelligence to learn, and adjust to, the driving characteristics of the wearer.

At first glance this machine seems totally wacky, like something Luke Skywalker might have written off as too slow and impractical. Or, worse, it sounds like a Sinclair C5 brought up to date for the iPod generation. Toyota, after all, does encourage its designers to think freely and the Tokyo show has a reputation for weird concepts that are guaranteed never to go near an assembly line.

But there are good reasons to take a second look at the i-swing before writing it off as a flight of fancy. The machine is the latest iteration in a series of ‘personal mobility’ concepts shown by Toyota going back to 2003. These machines — including the i-foot, a wearable, two-legged walking robot — featured in an extensive exhibition at Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan.

And while Toyota has been exploring these ideas, the American-designed Segway HT (Human Transporter) has been successful as a consumer product featuring a similar two-wheeled gyroscopic balancing concept.

With fuel prices high and rising, congestion charges and pay-as-you-go driving likely to become commonplace and parking increasingly scarce and expensive, it is time to ask whether our transportation system could be helped, or even revolutionised, by machines that lie somewhere between walking and driving.

Toyota’s first personal mobility concept was the PM. Presented at the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show, this is an electric four-wheeled vehicle with one seat in a fully enclosed pod to provide weather protection. In high-speed mode its wheelbase stretches out and its cabin lies back to improve stability.

In city mode the rider’s posture is more upright, as the front and rear wheels draw together to improve manoeuvrability. In entry/exit mode the cabin is fully upright and the vehicle can be parked in very narrow spaces. PMs can communicate with each other — following a leader, for example, so users can ‘meet, link and hang out’.

According to Toyota, ‘Rather than driving a single-seater PM, the experience is closer to wearing one.’

A further development showcased at Expo 2005 was the i-unit. Also a single-seat four-wheeler, this machine is smaller and lighter than the PM.

According to Toyota, it has been designed to enhance the passenger’s sense of being ‘one’ with the vehicle.

Toyota’s language reveals a lot about its thinking. The ‘i’, for example, is derived from ‘inspire the individual’.

The company talks about ‘expanding human abilities’ by not stopping at making cars smaller but by ‘creating a union of driver and vehicle’, ensuring that it ‘can be operated according to the passenger’s preferences and physical condition’.

At 1.1m long in low-speed mode and 1.8m in high-speed mode, the i-unit’s compactness is close to that of a human, it can walk and run like a human and, claimed Toyota, can operate in human-only places such as pavements, parks and indoor areas, where vehicles currently cannot enter.

Machines built for Expo 2005 were restricted to about 20km/h, but, claimed Toyota, ‘our aim is to make the i-unit’s actual driving performance the same as that of ordinary cars.’

The i-swing is smaller still than the PM — less than 1m long in two-wheeled mode — and it features a urethane body covered in cloth to soften any impact when operating near people.

While other mainstream car makers have yet to delve into this realm of personal mobility, whatever the future may hold, Segway has shown that there is currently a market for machines of this type. According to Doug Field, Segway’s vice-president of design and engineering and chief technology officer, the key to understanding the merit of machines like the HT is to not to think of them as vehicles.

Humans, he said, are unique in that our ‘footprint’ is very small compared to our size and speed. Cities are built on a similar small footprint — skyscrapers being the best example — but cars are not compatible with this. Their footprint is very large, and in cities they take too much space to park and tend to travel slowly owing to traffic. ‘Our goal is not to compete with cars, it’s to provide a different experience,’ said Field.

He stressed the alternatives, noting that ‘cars are very good at certain things’ like travelling at speed with several people, carrying luggage and offering weather protection.

Any machine that has too many drawbacks without offering some benefits that are different from a car’s will fail commercially.

The Sinclair C5 was an example of that, he said, as it was slow, provided no weather protection and wasn’t safe on the road with cars and trucks. ‘There’s a certain no-man’s land that you have to be very careful of, between small, practical vehicles and cars,’ he claimed. The HT, he added, does not belong on the road.

But Field believes that rising fuel prices, combined with people’s weariness of wasting time in traffic and the overall costs of motoring, such as parking, insurance and servicing, will drive a change in the transportation culture. He sees, for example, families going from having two cars to just one, and reserving its use for when it’s really needed.

Everyone might instead have a smaller personal mobility device for more general use.

Field drew a parallel with stereos; families went from having one large music system to having several, but now have probably gone back to just one large system and a personal, portable music player for everybody.

Field is not expecting major changes in car use and ownership any time soon because fuel is still too cheap, at least in America, to force people to change their habits. The ‘pain level’ associated with cars has got to get worse before there is any mass adoption of personal mobility devices, he claimed. But, he added, the technology is available and will be taken up when it’s time for change.

‘I’m an engineer. I try to design products to address problems, and hope the market responds.’ Meanwhile, he said, transportation is the world’s biggest industry so a company like Segway can be a success without being huge.

What the Segway HT and Toyota’s ‘i’ concepts highlight is that the huge challenge facing personal mobility as a transportation solution is legislative and regulatory, not technical. In principle, pedestrian areas are not for vehicles, and a Segway would be useless if it were banned from them.

Field says that, fortunately, most local authorities have been satisfied that the HT’s small footprint and 12.5mph top speed (about running speed) make it safe to mix with pedestrians. ‘We’ve been amazed at how regulatory agencies have reacted,’ he said.

What is vastly more challenging is for regulations, infrastructure and vehicle technology to accommodate a device that can operate in pedestrian zones and also travel at speed between them. Toyota’s ‘i’ concepts appear to be trying to make just that leap. Indeed, the car maker said, ‘The basic mobility requirement is to be able to travel to any location, and the i-unit was developed with the aim of creating a form that could bring mobility closer to people’.

The company wants society to begin discussing ‘what conditions and needs will be involved in bringing mobility’ into pedestrian spaces ‘so that new rules can be laid down’.

What those new rules might be is far from clear, however. Eric Wallbank, director of the consultancy Ernst & Young’s automotive unit in London, said that to introduce any road-going capability will require changes in legislation and also infrastructure. The vehicles will either have to meet the crash safety standards demanded of cars or there will have to be special lanes or paths for vehicles that aren’t cars — or even city centres that are kept free of cars altogether.

Ultimately, consumer demand may also kill off any such concepts; factors like fuel prices have, after all, had little effect on the market so far, driving some shift to diesel in

Europe and hybrids in America but otherwise not greatly altering buying habits.

‘The consumer market has proved itself to be robustly conservative,’ he said. Richard Gane, of PriceWaterhouse-Cooper’s performance improvement consultancy, agreed that personal mobility is attractive for its novelty value, but said that if such devices became commonplace there would be accidents, injuries and regulation.

He claimed that the market is too conservative to take on an alternative that really competes most directly with walking and the bicycle.

After noting that it took 30 years for the minor innovation of the transverse-mounted engine to become a mainstream solution,

Gane said, ‘I guess I’m old enough to have seen a few of these great ideas that don’t work.’

Even Segway’s Field is clear that the leap to a road-going machine will be difficult. Segway has started to explore ways to take its technology into new areas of capability with a concept vehicle called the Centaur. This electric four-wheeler resembles a quad bike and can handle much more speed than an HT, and can also be taken up on its two rear wheels and ridden like an HT.

But, said Field, it does not belong with pedestrians and would have to be street legal to be used for commuting, as attractive as it might be for that purpose given its cross-country capability. There are potential off-road, military and security uses for Centaur, but Segway has for now left it as a concept vehicle.

Technologies are, however, being developed for personal mobility vehicles that could make their way into mainstream cars. Gane said that even if such machines aren’t particularly practical, they could be the technology bridges to very compact cars powered by fuel cells. Toyota has expressed that hope for its i-unit, which is at present powered by lithium ion batteries.

The human interface concepts being employed are also intriguing. The HT is claimed to be the world’s first fully drive-by-wire vehicle, and Toyota is also using that technology. Leaning to steer could be advantageous for disabled people; and Segway has begun to license its technology to others for product development.

According to Peter Cooke, KPMG professor of automotive industries management at Nottingham Trent University, the solid-state gyroscopes that keep a Segway HT or Toyota i-swing upright could open the way to building two-wheeled cars. Even with the occupants sitting side by side, a two-wheeled car would be much narrower than a four-wheeled car, reducing its footprint and turning circle, and improving its fuel economy.

The most likely outcome may well be that Segway’s Centaur and Toyota’s ‘i’ machines remain, like most concept vehicles, as mere concepts with no real hope of being commercially viable soon. Sometimes, though, it does pay to take the long view. Toyota clearly isn’t rushing towards production of an ‘i’ anything, but it has taken the step of establishing ‘Wearable Mobility’ as a registered trademark.