By Matt Brogan at the Amlux Centre - Tokyo, Japan.
This is a first steer with a difference -- the one-seat i-REAL Toyota personal mobility vehicle.
The i-REAL was developed to mimic closely human proportions in terms of its physical height. Standing at some 1430mm when in "Walking Mode" a seated human at the controls will see most drivers at eye level with surrounding pedestrians, and although nothing's confirmed, we could even see it in Australia.
The single-seat i-REAL can be operated in two modes depending on its environment, and changes its size to meet with both its environ, as well as the requirements of physics needed for the cornering speeds encountered in each mode.
The first, and slower, "Walking Mode" (maximum speed 6km/h) sees i-REAL function in a more upright pose with a total length of just 995mm so as to reduce the area consumed by its footprint in busy pedestrian areas such as shopping malls, or as recently proved, airports, with i-REAL having been on test for security and customer assistance purposes at Japan's Centrair Airport since June of this year.
While the second, faster mode - known as "Cruising Mode" (maximum speed 30km/h) - sees the 700mm wide i-REAL extend its length to 1510mm while also reducing its height to 1125mm. The recline of the seat is automatically corrected to allow for the change is pose - seating the driver in a more upright position as i-REAL leans back. While in this faster mode, i-REAL's front wheels also lean independently for greater stability when cornering. The wheels are suspended by a leading arm arrangement to absorb small surface irregularities.
To imagine what it's like to drive the i-REAL I guess it can be described as combining a Bobcat and an electric wheelchair - and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. The i-REAL lowers itself to ground level before taking your seat to find the controls, two joysticks - one for each hand - are moved in unison in a most simplistic forward, left and right motion. Pulling back on the controls or using the index finger trigger, brings i-REAL to a stop. The braking is achieved both by the electric motors - which then work regeneratively to charge the batteries - and by traditional friction braking if so required.
i-REAL is also fitted with lights and chimes to make aware "pleasantly" those surrounding you that you're on the move. Should however i-REAL get a little too close for comfort, perimetre monitoring sensors will sense pedestrians (or objects) and try to prevent a collision by vibrating to warn the driver. This feature also forms part of the i-REAL's security functionality when not in use. i-REAL also has a seatbelt, just in case.
The rear screen is programmable to reflect the driver's personality as is a small side screen which is also used for communication, navigation and entertainment. LED lights, located in the wheel arches, provide illumination, clearance lighting and also house indicators which are self-actuated when i-REAL enters a turn.
With six electric motors controlling forward movement (two - one for each wheel - located within the wheel), vehicle incline (two), the extension of the rear wheel (one) and direction (one) the i-REAL is impressively agile and easy to manage, in spite of its 180kg bulk. A maxiumum cruising range of 30km is possible.
The i-REAL is powered by lithium-ion batteries that are charged via a regular domestic outlet. It takes two hours to achieve a full charge with an 80 per cent charge (enough for 24 kilometres) available after just one hour.
i-REAL can also be optioned with a rain hood, small backpack cargo case and a front mounted suitcase rack.
In order to help the environmental credentials of this already low emissions vehicle i-REAL uses kenaf-fibre bioplastic is many of its softer panels with traditional acrylic resin panels used where greater strength or impact resistance is required.
Yet to be commercialised, the i-REAL has not yet been given retail pricing, but according to i-REAL's designer, Mr Morita, it will be "more than a motorike but less than a car". Roughly translated in dollar terms I would expect this to mean around AUD$12,000.
No time frame has yet been given for when i-REAL will be available for retail consumption.