Toyota is taking to the public sidewalks of Japan with the Winglet, its two-wheeled personal mobility robot that looks like a miniature Segway. The trial, designed to test the Winglet's safety and practicality in the real world, takes place in Tsukuba city's Mobility Robot Experimental Zone, an area designated for just this type of thing. The move points to a possible commercialization of the robot in the future, which has been demonstrated only as a concept thus far.
The first phase of the test, which focuses on safety and compatibility with pedestrians and other traffic, begins today and will run through to March 2014. Some 80 test subjects from the local municipality and National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) will have access to eight Winglet Long Types. This model is designed for adults, though Toyota has also shown smaller versions for teenagers and children.
Those who sign up will be able to ride the robots on sidewalks on their commutes or while going out during their work day, and report on their experiences. It appears that they will adhere to road and traffic rules regulating bicycles and scooters. After that Toyota says it will assess the Winglet's overall functionality and convenience and whether or not a demand exists.
The Segway may not have ushered in a brave new world of personal mobility, but perhaps it targeted the wrong market. Toyota's Winglet, which shrinks the concept and adds a much needed stylistic overhaul, could find success in the more densely-populated urban centers of Japan if it makes the grade. It's just one of a handful of eco-minded concept vehicles currently in the works, alongside rival Honda's UNI-CUB, that are designed for short trips.
Laws regulating the use of such vehicles will need to be broadened in Japan and elsewhere before such vehicles can really take off. But the rules don't seem to be stifling innovation, and if they encourage more thorough testing, the end user will benefit.
Meanwhile in China, a company called Robstep Robotics has developed its own Segway-like robot called the Robin-M1 that has a range of 20 km (12 miles), travels at up to 15 km/h (9.3 mph) and undercuts the competition with a retail price of around US$2,000. It's already being used on city streets.
And it's not alone. The Chegway by Beijing Fucheng Weijing Investment & Yantai Rijiang Electric, and the Windrunner by Uptech Robotics, are other Chinese contenders. Toyota may forfeit a potentially lucrative market if they remain idle for too long.
In the meantime, those of us who wouldn't mind a Winglet have plenty of time to save up for one, with the tests scheduled to end sometime in 2016.
If you've never seen someone tooling around on a Segway before, you may find the following video slightly more interesting than the rest of us. If anything, it shows The Jetsons' prediction of conveyor belt sidewalks of the future wasn't entirely off the mark.