Village of the Future | Sunday Observer

Village of the Future

Toyota Woven City
Toyota Woven City

If all the science fiction predictions of the 1960s came true, we would be zipping around in flying cars and driverless cars, taking to the skies in jet packs, having nuclear fusion power and travelling regularly to Mars.

None of these is beyond our reach – it is just that technology has not matured to the point where these are commonplace. However, there already are cars that fly – they may get regulatory approval soon. Moreover, Uber, Airbus and Boeing have all shown prototype fully electric Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft that can replace cars for short commutes and of course, beat the traffic on the ground.

There are jet packs – one person recently crossed the English Channel using a jet pack, but it will take a decade or more to commercialize them. When 2054, the year featured in the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report dawns, both jet packs and flying cars will be commonplace as are fully autonomous (driverless) cars.

Fusion power could still be around three or four decades away, but scientists have made rapid progress. Just don’t expect fusion power to come in a bottle, as depicted in the 1985 movie Back to the Future. Fusion, basically the same process that powers the Sun, would herald in a new era of power generation that would complement renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind.

As for Mars, scientists and governments are planning to launch manned missions, which might happen by 2030. It is unlikely that there will be tourist flights to Mars at least until 2050, but such flights to Earth Orbit will be common even by next year. Virgin Galactic will in fact have its first tourist space flight this year. There could perhaps be tourist flights to the Moon before tackling Mars.

While research is taking place on all these technologies around the world, there is no single place or focal point where they can all be tested and experienced. That will change with plans by Japanese carmaker Toyota to build a ‘prototype city of the future’ on a 175-acre site at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan to test and develop new emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles. The city was designed in conjunction with renowned Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, whose firm is responsible for designing the upcoming 2 World Trade Center in New York.

Akio Toyoda, president of the automaker, described this “Woven City” as a “living laboratory” that will include thousands of residents and will test autonomous vehicles, robotics, personal mobility, smart homes and artificial intelligence in a real-world environment. This is indeed a novel idea that will enable scientists to test a blend of emerging technologies.

“Imagine a fully controlled site that will allow researchers, engineers and scientists to freely test technologies,” he said when announcing the plans in Las Vegas in line with the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) there. “This will be a truly unique opportunity to create an entire community or city from the ground up.”

The company did not announce a cost or timeframe for completion of the project, which plans to break ground in 2021. The master plan for the city includes three sectors for research of such technologies: fast vehicles; mix of lower speed, personal mobility and pedestrians; and a park-like promenade for pedestrians. Toyota expects about 2,000 people – from employees to retailers and visiting scientists – to initially live in the Woven City.

The city is planned to be fully sustainable, according to the company. That includes buildings made mostly of wood to minimize the carbon footprint; the rooftops covered in photo-voltaic panels to generate solar power in addition to power generated by hydrogen fuel cells; fully autonomous, zero-emission vehicles; and solar power in addition to power generated by hydrogen fuel cells. Moreover, the smart residences will be equipped with the “latest in human support technologies, such as in-home robotics to assist with daily living.”

The homes will use sensor-based Artificial Intelligence systems to check occupants’ health. Toyota also plans to weave in the outdoors throughout the city, with native vegetation and hydroponics, one of the latest technologies in agriculture where soil is not used. In and throughout Woven City, autonomous Toyota e-Palettes will be used for transportation and deliveries, as well as for mobile retail.

As explained by Toyota, “building a complete city from the ground up, even on a small scale like this, is a unique opportunity to develop future technologies, including a digital operating system for the city’s infrastructure. With people, buildings and vehicles all connected and communicating with each other through data and sensors, we will be able to test connected AI technology… in both the virtual and the physical realms … maximizing its potential.”

One problem for tech companies testing some of the new technologies such as autonomous cars is that they have to test them on public roads which are mostly populated by cars driven by humans. This has already led to several fatal accidents. However, they can easily be tested in a purpose built city, where every car, bus and train will be autonomous. There will be no fear of coming into contact with a human-driven car.

The city is also likely to have ‘intelligent’ traffic signals and street signals that can communicate with the vehicles. And in a nod to how important autonomous cars are going to be, electronics maker Sony surprised everyone at the CES with a car of its own. While it is unlikely that Sony will venture into car production, its intention was to showcase the importance of various electronics in a driverless car.

In Woven City, the streets will be split into three different types; the first will be for faster road cars, the second for a mix of low-speed transportation solutions like bicycles, personal mobility, and pedestrians, and the third will introduce promenades only accessible by your own two feet. In effect, this is an ideal plan for any city, but not many cities can be ‘retro-fitted’ to reflect such changes. Imagine the chaos that would result if an established city such as Colombo were to undergo such a transformation in a short period.

But all cities will have to adjust to and accommodate these technologies in the long term, because one cannot stop the forward march of technology. Driverless cars are already here, the only setback at the moment being the lack of regulatory approval and enthusiasm.

The same goes for many of the other technologies. For example, Governments could give greater incentives for renewable energy installations and the purchase of electric cars and associated charging stations. As the saying goes, if there is a will, there is a way.