Why You May Never Need to Buy Another Car

Toyota’s high-tech electric car–sharing service connects you to vehicles and public transit through your smartphone.

Toyota has big plans for tiny electric cars. (Photo: Toyota)

Jul 2, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

Your next car may not be a car. Instead, your smartphone will get you where you need to go, if a novel electric car–sharing service Toyota is launching in Grenoble, France, takes off.

Siri, meet Ha:mo. That’s short for Harmonious Mobility, Toyota’s rather Zen name for the service that integrates a koan of a car—a two-seat three-wheeler so minimalist it hardly seems to be a car at all—with Grenoble’s bus and tram service. Plugged into the computer network that manages the city’s transportation system, Ha:mo constantly scans traffic, bus, and tram capacity and the availability of the 70 electric cars parked at charging stations around the city. It then beams that data to your phone and maps the quickest route to your destination using a mix of public transit and Ha:mo cars.

You can choose either an electric Toyota i-Road—a candy-colored Blade Runner–like microcar that makes a Fiat 500 look like a limo—or a Toyota COMS, a dowdier single-seater with a luggage compartment that resembles a golf cart with a roof.

The tiny emission-free vehicles are designed to solve the so-called last-mile conundrum. Buses and trains may not get commuters close enough to their destination, so they end up driving to avoid a long walk, particularly at night or in inclement weather.

The availability of an electric car that can be conveniently picked up at a transit stop and then dropped off at the destination takes care of that problem. In theory, Ha:mo reduces or even eliminates the need to own and operate an expensive, carbon-spewing car that sits unused most of the time. The size of the i-Road will help cut traffic congestion in urban centers, reducing air pollution as well as planet-warming carbon emissions.

“Toyota thinks that smoother mobility can be achieved by linking and coordinating the use of automobiles and public transportation,” Ed Lewis, a spokesperson for Toyota Motor North America, said in an email. “For Toyota, electricity remains an effective energy source for the diversification of fuels and reduction of transport emission in an urban environment.”

If the Grenoble service, which launches in September, lives up to Toyota’s marketing hype, it could upend the way people think about transportation and car ownership.

Wake up in the morning, check your smartphone, and Ha:mo will tell you the best way to get to work, such as suggesting you take a tram and then pick up a car at the station near your office to cover the remaining mile. In a promotional video, a hip young guy in a business suit reserves an i-Road on his smartphone before he leaves home. When he arrives at the train station, he waves his phone, and his car backs out of a parking space. Unlike most conventional car-sharing services, Ha:mo lets drivers drop of their cars at any charging station around Grenoble.

Toyota has yet to disclose what it’ll cost to use Ha:mo.

As more people use the system, it gathers more data on transportation habits, adjusting the availability of buses and trams and fine-tuning traffic routes.

It sounds great for densely packed European cities where urban dwellers are accustomed to taking public transportation and driving tiny cars. But will it work in suburban nations like the United States and Australia? Maybe. It would seem ideal for cities like Boston, Sydney, and San Francisco.

Toyota isn’t the only automaker that sees the future in selling “mobility” to millennials who have so far shown scant interest in auto ownership. In 2011, Ford struck a deal with Zipcar to make its cars available on 250 college campuses in the U.S., and BMW operates an electric car–sharing service in Germany and in San Francisco.

“To implement smart and sustainable mobility systems, Toyota is taking part in the development of urban transportation systems linking individual users and communities through communication and information technology,” Lewis said. “Toyota is particularly interested in developing vehicles and systems together.”