TOKYO — In the era of Uber and all manner of ride hailing, it may seem strange for a major global automaker to spend valuable r&d resources on a dedicated, old-school taxicab.
But Toyota Motor Corp. is doing just that with a newly designed taxi that it will debut at this week's Tokyo Motor Show. The bulbous hybrid hatchback will give Tokyo's streetscape its biggest makeover in two decades, arriving just in time for the 2020 summer Olympics here.
Toyota's design takes a decidedly high-tech tack, starting with a fuel-efficient hybrid drivetrain, like the flagship Prius.
Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, who has told Automotive News that as a child he dreamed of being a taxi driver, took a special shine to the project, championing the new taxi from its first stages of development.
The CEO even made sure to test it personally, first from the back seat and then from behind the steering wheel, before giving his final sign-off, said Hiroshi Kayukawa, chief engineer on the vehicle.
The focus on building a better taxi may be a tad antiquated but it is curiously Japanese.
As new mobility businesses such as Uber, Didi and Lyft catch fire in big markets from the U.S. to China, Japan remains uniquely impervious to the trend. The country's entrenched taxi industry has successfully kept interloping tech companies at bay — thanks largely to their ubiquity in Japanese cities.
In fact, Uber's attempts to find traction in Japan have largely failed. It has resigned itself to experimenting in other business models, including hot-meal deliveries from restaurants.
Kayukawa argues that ride-sharing and autonomous taxis are too futuristic. Toyota wants to supply a taxi that would see immediate widespread adoption, and it sees taxi operators as partners.
"It may happen in other countries," Kayukawa said of ride-hailing. "But in the case of Japan, we don't see it."
The upcoming car promises to supplant the ubiquitous Toyota Crown Comfort three-box sedans that are as archetypal of Japanese taxis as the dainty white gloves their drivers wear.
It gets an instantaneously recognized silhouette that elongates the cabin into a two-box wagon-hatch reminiscent of a black London cab.
It has a huge greenhouse and a low beltline, which allow plenty of visibility for driver and passenger alike. Extra-tall side windows in back give tourists a panoramic view.
Accessibility was a top priority. The car has a low, flat floor and wide-opening sliding doors. Other amenities include an array of USB ports, ultralong legroom compared with the standard Japanese taxi, ample luggage room for four golf bags and LED lights on the seat belt buckles to help locate them in the dark. Upper trim models get rear seat heaters.
Toyota has been showing concept versions since the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show. The current version of the angular Crown Comfort has been on the roads since 1995.
There are 230,000 taxis in operation across Japan, including 50,000 alone in Tokyo, according to Kayukawa. Toyota supplies about 80 percent of the taxis sold to big fleets.
But the new taxi's chief engineer isn't forecasting fat profits.
The new car will cost more than the outgoing model, thanks partly to its hybrid drivetrain. And volumes are low. Toyota makes only 900 to 1,000 taxis a month.
Toyota also wants to brighten the image of the traditional Tokyo taxi, but just a tad.
The next car will come in three standard colors, white, black and a new option — deep indigo.
Toyota is pushing Japan's taxi association to adopt the warm indigo in place of the dour black that is so common today.
Says Kayukawa: "It fits the feeling of hospitality we want to express."