I’m sitting at AMLUX in Tokyo watching Toyota demonstrate the i-REAL personal mobility vehicle. Currently there is a Japanese women tearing around the room in one of these things. That’s right, she’s tearing it up. For those that used to compare the i-REAL to the Segway, consider the comparison dead. The i-REAL looks cooler and goes faster. And you sit in it rather than stand.
OK, so when I say ‘tearing up’ I don’t mean Formula 1 style. Being that this is a small room it certainly looks like she has some speed behind her though. The i-REAL leans into its corners for a better center of gravity, allowing her to maintain speed while cornering. It looks pretty cool too. It must be said that the woman test driver is small and is only just fitting in the vehicle. Some of the journos here are going to struggle to get in this thing. I think even I will, and I’m just five foot ten by the old tape. As we watch her go another Toyota rep explains how the i-REAL works. The vehicle is operated very simply. There are dual joystick controls. Push forward to accelerate and push back to brake. We’re going to assume that you can figure out how to go left and right so we won’t insult your intelligence but telling you the rest of the rep’s speech. Being that the i-REAL is powered by a lithium ion battery it is virtually silent while moving. A single charge will get you up to 30km and obviously be a hell of a lot better for the environment than a petrol powered car or bike. And being that you can hit top speeds of 30kph, you could actually do 30km in a day without spending the whole day on the i-REAL. Imagine tearing up the pavement in one of these things while you watch those suckers stuck on the highway in peak hour traffic. Thankfully the 30kph speed will allow you to get away from the school kids that will, no doubt, be hurling eggs at you if you did that. Being a Japanese invention it isn’t be complete without some sort of quirky bit. And here it is: The back of the i-REAL is a huge LED display that’s completely customisable. You can change it as you would your desktop wallpaper. The lady demonstrating the device currently has multi-coloured flashes shooting across the back of the i-REAL. We’ve also seen flower petals, cherry blossoms, waterfalls and sparks. The display is all well and good, but can you imagine what would happened if this vehicle was actually released in Australia? I’m picturing displays with “If you can read this you can probably smell that I haven’t showered today”, or “NERDS RULE!”, or “Bite me Neil Armstrong”, or “Toyotas slowly, quietly and environmentally consciously urinate on Fords and Holdens”. Ummm, I seem to have forgotten why I am here. Ah yes, to test drive this thing. Before I get behind the controls, I must mention the social networking aspect of the i-REAL. Yes, that’s right, social networking. The i-REAL features social networking applications. You can speak to other i-REAL users while you’re on the run and geotag sights and places that you like as well. Potentially you and your i-REAL mates could organise to meet up while you are flying around on one. And now for the test-drive itself. It has to be said that I’m slightly anxious about using this thing. I have never used any sort of vehicle like this and I know it’s worth quite a bit of money. Luckily the chaps from Toyota are directing the journos as they test them. The vehicle is quite something. As I first get in, I struggle to get my shoulders comfortable in the tiny seat. Unfortunately we aren’t allowed to just go for it Lewis Hamilton style. An instructor is guiding as around the room and making sure we don’t take flight.
I find the i-REAL simple to operate, with buttons on both armrests of the vehicle. There’s a mode that allows you to get in it, as well as park, walk, and cruise modes. You just press whichever button you need and hey presto, the i-REAL is ready to go. Then it’s just a case of moving the joysticks to go. The difference between walk and cruise is the position the i-REAL takes when in motion and the speed it can achieve. When you put it in cruise mode the back wheel extends to give the vehicle a lower centre of gravity and a headrest pops out the back. It’s almost like a Formula 1 style driving position.
The i-REAL responds brilliantly to your commands through the joystick offering instant feedback. The only issue is the suspension, or lack thereof. Driving on carpet feels a bit like taking a rally car for a spin. You can feel every bump and grind through the ergonomic seat. If it’s like that on carpet, imagine what it would be like on a pavement!
Having said that though this is an early model and Toyota say that we should expect improvements and developments on the i-REAL. According to Makoto Morita, the i-REAL project manager, we could see these commercially available in four to five years time at a price well under $10,000. What you would use it for is questionable. Aside from the suspension issues, there is no weather protection. But as a vehicle for the airport or mall, it could be fantastic.
In terms of the fun factor though, I get off the i-REAL with a smile larger than Krusty the Clown during a Krusty Burger commercial. It’s pretty awesome.
Damian Francis is the editor-at-large for Australian T3 and contributing technology editor for GQ Australia. He was in Japan as a guest of Toyota Australia.