Toyota Motor Corp. is aiming to become a world leader in smart city technology with its ambitious project to build Woven City, a fully-connected, human-centered city at the base of Mt. Fuji.
The coronavirus pandemic has prompted a rethink of how people move and live, and reinforced the need to create technology that supports "happy, healthy" human life, Toyota Chief Digital Officer James Kuffner said.
"Woven City is not meant to be a technology bubble where the technology stays only within Woven City. It's really meant to be a place where we incubate it, test it, accelerate it, and then export it all over the world," Kuffner said in a recent interview with Kyodo News.
For countries like Japan, it is an urgent task to address the challenges posed by the graying of society such as mobility and healthy living. In Woven City, autonomous buses will transport people and smart homes with sensors will check the health of their residents.
Sustainability is also another key theme across the globe in the struggle for decarbonization to bring carbon dioxide emissions to net zero before or by 2050.
"If we can build something that has value in a place like Japan and the cities of Japan, I think it can be valuable everywhere," said Kuffner, a former Google engineer who now serves as CEO of Woven Planet Holdings Inc., a Toyota subsidiary in charge of the project.
Now under construction at the 175-acre site of a recently closed Toyota subsidiary plant in the central Japan prefecture of Shizuoka, Woven City will serve as a "living laboratory" for self-driving vehicles, delivery robots, smart homes and artificial intelligence, according to Toyota.
With its partial opening slated for as early as 2024, the city will initially have roughly 360 residents such as seniors, families with children and inventors and the number is expected to increase to over 2,000 including Toyota employees.
The project is open to partners and Toyota has received over 4,700 applications from companies and individuals from areas including agriculture, healthcare and education as of June.
Kuffner said the project is unique because it allows people with innovative ideas to test new technologies "at scale," get feedback from residents and improve them -- an example of "kaizen" or continuous improvement, a core principle pioneered by Toyota in pursuit of building a lean production system.
The world's biggest automaker by volume has been accelerating its drive to transform itself into a mobility company, putting more focus on software in the era of connected, autonomous, shared, and electric vehicles, or CASE.
Toyota President Akio Toyoda has personally invested in Woven Planet and stressed the importance of partnerships and collaboration to achieve mobility for all. The smart city project is an integral part of the company's drive.
Kuffner was part of Google's initial engineering team to develop the U.S. tech giant's self-driving car before joining the Toyota Research Institute in 2016. He became a member of the Toyota board in 2020 amid the automaker's software push.
Woven Planet has bought the self-driving division of U.S. ride-hailing company Lyft Inc. and also Carmera Inc., a U.S. automated mapping firm.
Toyota, a pioneer in fuel cell vehicles, plans to have the entire ecosystem in Woven City powered by hydrogen and has agreed with Japanese energy company Eneos Corp. to work toward realizing a hydrogen supply chain, from production and delivery to actual use at the site.
Globally, tech giants like Google LLC, Apple Inc., and Amazon.com Inc. are also serious about smart city development.
Despite the promises of smart cities, skeptics express concerns about huge amounts of personal data that are collected via sensors and other devices and analyzed. Data security and protection of privacy are seen as hurdles to clear before establishing communities that adopt smart city technology.
Kuffner said Woven City would have "very well thought-out architectures" to ensure good privacy and security, adding that trust goes hand in hand with transparency.
"Toyota has a tradition of building products and services that have earned people's trust and that's what we would like to do going forward with this project," the chief digital officer said.
"Our dreams are big. We have a huge gap between the current reality and our dream," he said. "But we are climbing the mountain and we have a beautiful Mt. Fuji to inspire us."