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Metropolis now: Japan’s high-tech, high-hopes ‘city of the future’

Visitors queued for hours at the 1939 New York World’s Fair to take a spin around “the motorways of tomorrow”. Whisked in armchairs through the Futurama exhibit’s model city, they marvelled at the prospect of remote-controlled cars that would dominate roads, they were told, as soon as 1960.

At Woven City, in the foothills of Japan’s Mount Fuji, the future is on the move – literally.

At Woven City, in the foothills of Japan’s Mount Fuji, the future is on the move – literally.

Eight decades on, cars that drive themselves are still far from ubiquitous on the world’s streets. But a city-of-the-future prototype, being built in the foothills of Japan’s Mount Fuji, will attempt to hasten their uptake at the same time as its 2000-odd real inhabitants safety-test other innovations: domestic robots, sensor-based artificial intelligence and smart-home technology. Conceived by Toyota and powered by its hydrogen fuel-cell technology, Woven City – so named for the carmaker’s industrial beginnings as a maker of looms – will be demonstrating, by 2024, a workable model of future urban life.

Driverless cars collect data from their surroundings. In Woven City, sensors festooned throughout the 70-hectare metropolis will generate a torrent of information with which to build a real-time digital map that the autonomous vehicles (AVs) will then use to plot their journeys. They will operate on dedicated thoroughfares, ferrying around people and packages, even acting as mobile shops, with other pathways designated pedestrian-only routes.

Toyota calls the living laboratory, which will feature carbon-neutral buildings by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, “a city built for happiness”; certainly, getting the infrastructure right is likely to open up lucrative industry partnerships. But some experts still wonder about the translatability of AV tech into real-world settings.


Professor Andry Rakotonirainy, a road-safety expert from Queensland University of Technology, says predicting the near-time movement of AVs and people, thereby avoiding collisions, is automation’s “holy grail”. Introducing AVs into a city isn’t just about “having lots of toys about the place”, he warns. “There are important questions to answer: what would be the social and infrastructure costs of untangling a shared road system as in, say, Sydney’s CBD? At this stage, it’s utopian.”

Utopian or not, Toyota has already debuted its e-Palette AV, which it says is sharable and customisable. Meanwhile, posties and garbos are unlikely to number among Woven City’s residents: the AVs that will deliver mail to homes by way of underground roads will also pick up the rubbish.

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