While crazy, conceptual gadgets are always a highlight at, some of the most interesting devices at recent iterations of the show featured something unusual: wheels. While Japan's has always been a haven for tech-riddled concept machines, many companies are choosing to show off their forward-thinking rides at Ceatec, which takes place a few weeks earlier and is frequented by virtually every major Japanese company in the technology space.
In 2013 it was the auto companies taking up more space than any other. Even Sony's massive booth paled in comparison to the sprawling driving loop Nissan used to demonstrate its Autonomous Drive Vehicle -- an all-electric Leaf wizened up and able to navigate roads by itself. The company showed a similar concept last year, a Leaf that could park itself and had cameras that an owner could connect to remotely should the alarm go off. This year's, though, was quite an upgrade.
The 2013 version has five new laser scanners, one facing in each of the four directions plus a second looking up front for extra fidelity. These create a 3D map of the environment 25 times per second, letting the car know what's going on around it. They're augmented by a forward-looking camera that identifies road markings.
With five sensors scanning and a Windows 8-powered computer parsing all the data, the car is quite capable of driving itself. On the Ceatec floor the car took us for a ride through a simple figure eight, yielding to another vehicle at one point before later safely passing it. The modified Leaf also came to a complete stop at intersections and even used its turn signals, which is more than we can say for many human drivers. Passengers inside the car are treated to a real-time display of the laser scanners' findings, with boxes and lines identifying trouble.
It was a limited demo necessitated by somewhat limited floor space, but Nissan footage showed the same car driving autonomously at up to 70 kph (about 45 mph), a speed that has been deemed fast enough for now. This is, of course, just a test bed for Nissan's future autonomous cars, which the company estimates will be on the market by 2020. Nissan has some sizable challenges to overcome between now and then. For one thing, the car's laser scanners don't work in heavy rain or fog. Additionally, the car is completely flummoxed by roundabouts. Japan, you see, doesn't have any.
Toyota was next-door, showing off its Winglet concept. Think: "Brightly colored Segway" and you're not far off, as Toyota's little personal mobility machine is similarly two-wheeled and self-balancing. But, it does have some significant advancements, including a chassis that pivots, enabling the wheels and the rider's feet to lean in to the turns. This creates a much more secure feeling than turning on a Segway. Additionally, Toyota's Wingman comes in a model that lacks handlebars, enabling you to cruise at up to 6 kph totally hands-free.
That model took a little more practice than the handlebar-equipped version, as you only have a small support against your shins to lean against. But, the machine is impressively stable in either configuration, and with only a few moments' practice it was easy to zip through the obstacle course Toyota had set up. This stability is due in part to the new larger design of this Winglet, which was originally shown in a smaller design back in 2008 -- before being mothballed until now.
While it's easy enough to ride, using one on the road might be a little more complicated. It's illegal. Japanese laws prevent the use of devices like this on either the road or the sidewalk, a curious state of legislation given that it's perfectly legal to slalom pedestrians on your bicycle here. Toyota is keen to show that the thing is safe in the hopes of getting legislation overturned, and it plans to start by distributing Winglets in lucky train stations and shopping centers.
Honda was present at Ceatec too, showing off a similar mobility device that, like Toyota's, is barred from public roads. It, however, has a far more engaging name: Uni-Cub. That's a reference to Honda's Super Cub motorcycle, a title that the company surely hopes will encourage sales success. (Sales of various permutations of the Super Cub number greater than 60 million worldwide since it was introduced in the '50s.) But, for that to happen the thing will need to go on sale first, and as of now Honda has no plans.
It uses an interesting drivetrain layout Honda calls Omni Traction, two wheels mounted perpendicular to each other. The tread on each wheel is itself composed of many smaller wheels, again perpendicular to the orientation of the wheel on which they're mounted. This enables the Uni-Cub to move in any direction and, like the Wingster, it is self-balancing. It can even drive itself around thanks to a smartphone app -- though we're having a hard time coming up for a good use for that.
To pilot the thing, you simply lean in the direction you want to go. Turning is a bit more tricky, requiring you twist in the seat slightly. We figure this is far easier than it must have been in Honda's original concept from a few years ago, which was a unicycle. The second, smaller wheel was added to make it easier to turn, but the "uni" name stuck.
Again, Honda currently has no plans to manufacture the Uni-Cub, and while Toyota is planning to create some test installations with the Wingster before the end of the year, they're likely to be very limited. With Nissan's autonomous efforts not expected to mature for another seven years or so, we'd recommend hanging on to your current means of transportation for now, outmoded though it may feel.