Is Toyota’s Mini EV the Future of Urban Transportation?

Toyota i-Road

Toyota i-Road

In a place known as Toyota (NYSE:TM) City, Japan, the world’s leading automaker is ramping up its investment in urban transportation systems. Toyota announced plans to increase the number of vehicles in its ride-sharing transport collective while noting it will produce the innovative electric vehicle known as the i-Road, a one-seat mini car that will enter the system in early 2014. The concept could translate to many U.S. cities.

The i-Road debuted as a concept car in international auto shows, but is getting its closeup at a new tech convention in Chiba City. Described by Toyota as “offering the convenience of a motorcycle” and a “new type of driving pleasure” in a miniature format, the i-Road will become one of the vehicles users can share as a part of the collective experiment in space-saving, energy-efficient transportation options.

While the diminutive stature of the i-Road suggests an unprecedented lightness for a vehicle of any type, the weight of 661 pounds is extraordinary. The three-wheel, one-seat mini will travel approximately 31 miles on a full charge, with top speeds at around 27 mph. To fill the need for regular charging, Toyota is expanding the number of stations where users can pick up the vehicles and expanding its fee-based rental system.

The transportation collective in Toyota City has motorcycles and buses in use, as well as other electric cars, which the i-Road will join in 2014. All rides can be reserved on a smartphone in real time, according to statement by Toyota. The next six weeks will serve as a trial period during which the fees will be set according to local demand. Toyota expects to discount round trips while not charging anything for membership in the collective.

The expansion of electric vehicle charging networks by automakers such as Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) has suggested the infrastructure for urban transportation systems may exist in the United States sooner than expected, perhaps as early as 2020. That date was the benchmark set by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his aim to push one-third of the city’s massive taxi fleet to electric power sources.

To achieve that goal, a major charging network initiative would have to take place. Should tiny electric vehicles like the i-Road be available on a larger scale, the taxicab itself might lose dominance in a giant urban centers like New York, where increased bike lanes, bike sharing, and pedestrian walkways have limited parking and road space for automobiles. Ride sharing companies or automakers themselves could pioneer the industry, as Toyota is doing in Japan.

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