Toyota Exec Says Company Must "Evolve Into a Maker of Robots"

Here’s the situation in Japan: The population is graying; the birth rate is declining; and car sales are shrinking domestically as Japanese youth, like American youth, are less keen on purchasing cars than they once were. Toyota is tackling this problem in an interesting way, and that’s by viewing themselves not as a car company, but as a mobility company.

Elderly people may not be buying cars, but they can still use help getting around—particularly those that have suffered strokes or other debilitating age-related conditions. Toyota figures they can help those folks perambulate with intelligently-designed robotics.

“If there’s a way that we can enable more elderly people to stay mobile after they can no longer drive, we have to look beyond just cars and evolve into a maker of robots,” Toshiyuki Isobe, chief officer of Toyota’s Frontier Research Center, told Reuters. (The Frontier Research Center is the arm of Toyota responsible for planning long-term strategy.) To that end they’ve been working on the Welwalk WW-1000, a rehabilitative system some ten years in the making.

Officially referred to as an “active extension, flexion and rotation movement device,” the core of the system is a robotic leg meant to be worn by the patient. This is used in concert with a treadmill, monitor, physical support system and an array of sensors. The target patient is one who has suffered a stroke resulting in lower limb paralysis, and the Welwalk is meant to aid in recovery of function through repeated use.

Over the past three years Toyota has installed the Welwalk “in 23 medical facilities throughout Japan for clinical research,” and now it appears the WW-1000 is ready for prime time. Having achieved the requisite approval and certification, Toyota is aiming to rent 100 of the units to medical facilities around the country by fall of this year.

This doesn’t mean Toyota is getting out of automobiles, of course; they’re still the world’s second largest car manufacturer and are, like all of their competitors, working on autonomous cars, with $1 billion invested in research. But it will be interesting to see what the name Toyota is most known for one hundred years from now. About a hundred years ago, Toyota was known for making looms.

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