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Tokyo tech suggests life beyond cars for Toyota

At the ongoing Tokyo motor show, Toyota is trying an unusual move: downplaying its cars

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Toyota president Akio Toyoda with the e-Palette, an electric, driverless machine.

Tokyo

IMAGINE driving late at night and having your companion notice that you're feeling tired by the sound of your sleepy voice. To keep you awake, your companion chats with you about your favourite sports team, and points out a nearby rest stop for a coffee.

If Toyota gets its way, that "companion" could soon be a part of your car. Toyota's LQ, one of the draws at the Tokyo motor show, is an electric four-seater that showcases just such a digital pal.

Japan's leading carmaker is working on the artificial intelligence (AI) needed to power the LQ's virtual companion, which it calls Yui.

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Toyota hopes Yui will make the LQ feel so personal (not to mention, personable) that drivers will feel more affection with the car the longer they own it - the name is a portmanteau of "Love" and "EQ", or emotional quotient.

Why build a car that people will develop warm and fuzzy feelings for? The LQ and Yui are Toyota's response to a world falling out of love with cars. "With the advance of the Internet and other such technologies, the term 'beloved car' has gradually fallen out of use," said Daisuke Ido, the engineer who led the development of the LQ concept car.

Talk about fighting fire with fire; Toyota has a stake in a startup called TRI-AD ( Toyota Research Institute - Advanced Development) that has hundreds of software engineers. They work on Yui and the autonomous drive systems intended to make operating a car safer and hands-free in the future.

Akio Toyoda, the president of Toyota, likened cars to horses. Speaking at the Toyota booth in the Tokyo show, he pointed out that the development of the automobile meant the replacement of 15 million horses in the United States. "But still we have race horses," he said. "Horses can communicate with people and their hearts. For people who ride them, horses are irreplaceable."

Toyota believes that AI can help build bonds similar to those between riders and their equine friends. "I think that cars in the future will be like horses," he said. "What people want from horses is heartfelt communication and the joy of moving together."

Toyota's anxiety about Japan's declining affection for cars has been reflected in shrinking attendance figures for the Tokyo auto show, which is open to the general public Friday until Nov 4.

The biennial event saw 902,000 paid visitors in 2013, but attendance has fallen steadily to 771,000 in 2017. The show's organising committee, chaired by Mr Toyoda, hopes to have one million people through the doors this year.

Like the Tokyo show, Toyota sees itself in a scramble for relevance.

Having declared itself a mobility company instead of a car manufacturer, it is downplaying showroom cars at the motor show.

"Our booth this time does not feature a single car to be launched next year," Mr Toyoda said. "All that is found here are forms of mobility that link to society and communities, and provide modes of getting around to people."

Those mobility products seem like technical doodles, but many are destined for production. One of these, a tiny electric vehicle called the Ultra-Compact Battery Electric Vehicle, is a two-seater that could not be further away from Tesla's fast, sleek machines. It has a modest range of 100km and tops out at only 60km/h, but Toyota says it is so easy to drive that it will be a boon to both elderly and inexperienced drivers.

It goes on sale in late 2020, along with an electric three-wheeler designed for elderly users to stand on. Both departures from conventional cars show how seriously Toyota is taking its mobility mission.

At the same time, much of Toyota's ongoing reinvention will take place under the spotlight of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. A major sponsor of both the summer games and the Paralympic Games, Toyota will supply the events a fleet of futuristic vehicles.

The LQ will be a convoy vehicle in the Olympic Torch relay, as hydrogen fuel cell buses that can pull up autonomously to the curb move crowds around. It is also supplying 160 units of the Accessible People Mover, an electric, wheelchair-friendly buggy designed for last mile transportation.

The e-Palette, a driverless electric shuttle, will ferry athletes around the Olympic Village, before undergoing further development as a mobility-as-a-service product. Mr Toyoda has particularly high hopes for the machine, which delivered him autonomously onto the stage at Tokyo.

"In the future, the e-Palette will be able to be an office, a store or even a hotel," Mr Toyoda said. "It will be able to become various kinds of services and it will go to people."

That statement contained a coded message to Toyota's 364,000 employees for what to do if the world really does end its love affair with cars. If people no longer go to Toyota, Toyota has little choice but to go to them.