Self-driving cars to javelin cart: Toyota's robots set for Olympic debut

More than a dozen autonomous driving vehicles, which Toyota calls e-Palette, will run on a continuous loop within the Olympic and Paralympic Village to shuttle athletes and staff
When athletes and organisers descend on Tokyo for the 2020 Olympic Games, they’ll be ferried around in autonomous cars, while torch relay runners will be accompanied by AI-equipped cars. Robots will ferry javelins and hammers.

All told, Toyota Motor Corp will provide 3,700 vehicles, including dozens of self-driving cars, about 500 fuel-cell vehicles and 850 battery-electric cars to the international sports competition.

As a top sponsor of the Tokyo Olympics and an automaker facing a murky future when gasoline-powered engines will fade away, Toyota is doing everything it can to market its transition into an eventual provider of on-demand transportation for consumers and businesses, instead of being merely an industrial manufacturer.

“We want to use the Olympics and Paralympics that happen every two years as a milestone,” Masaaki Ito, general manager of Toyota’s Olympic and Paralympic Division, said in an interview. “2020 will be a good time to show our transformation into a mobility company.”

Toyota, Volkswagen AG and other carmakers face an uncertain future as new technologies and business models ripple through the $2.23 trillion global auto industry. Almost every time Akio Toyoda, chief executive officer and grandson of the automaker’s founder, appears in public, he expounds on the shift to mobility services. From batteries and self-driving vehicles to lunar rovers and ride-hailing companies, the world’s second-biggest automaker is pouring more than $3 billion into deals and partnerships in recent years to stay ahead of competition.

More than a dozen autonomous driving vehicles, which Toyota calls e-Palette, will run on a continuous loop within the Olympic and Paralympic Village to shuttle athletes and staff. Another artificial intelligence technology-enabled, autonomous-driving vehicle, known as Concept-i, will travel alongside torch relay runners, according to Ito.

Toyota is also deploying various robots. In addition to the javelin-collecting robot, the manufacturer will have a humanoid robot, a robot to assist disabled spectators, and a telepresence robot that lets people talk with and see each other.

It’s helping Tokyo’s government make traffic smoother, by deploying technologies used to manage logistics and fleets. All of this will be done while achieving the lowest emissions target level of any official fleet used at the Olympics, the carmaker said.

Beyond Tokyo, Toyota is also working with Beijing Automotive Group’s bus unit over providing fuel-cell systems for buses to be deployed during the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.

Toyota’s sponsorship comes at a time when global interest in the Olympics is waning. Television ratings have fallen and cities have dropped out of the running to host the games as costs spiral. When Toyota signed on to sponsor four games from 2017-2024, Japanese media reported that it paid a record $835 million. Ito declined to comment on how much the carmaker paid for the sponsorship.

“In the middle-to-long run, how can we make Toyota a better company and how can we better interact with the society and make better cars, is what we want to find out through sponsoring the games,” Ito said. “If we could achieve these goals, the Olympic sponsorship isn’t expensive at all.”