Toyota’s Japan Taxi becomes an expensive Olympic symbol

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Launched in 2017, Toyota’s Japan Taxi sells for $31,786.40 (¥3.5 million) — almost a third more than the Crown model it replaces. (Reuters)
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Japan tourism officials have deployed a Japan Taxi to take US Paralympian Daniel Romanchuk, above, on a trip around Tokyo. (Reuters)
Updated 22 May 2019

Toyota’s Japan Taxi becomes an expensive Olympic symbol

  • The liquefied petroleum gas-hybrid taxi does not come cheap, selling for $31,786.40
  • The carmaker hopes that Olympic sheen will help it replace a third of Tokyo’s 30,000 taxis before the Games

TOKYO: Toyota’s Japan Taxi, born in a government committee and designed to be an all-things-to-all-people cab, has become a high-priced icon of Tokyo’s budget-busting 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Launched in 2017, the indigo car is the realization of a government project to put a taxi on Japan’s roads that could carry wheelchair users, luggage-laden travelers and foreign visitors of all sizes.
It includes a wheelchair ramp, heated seats, smartphone chargers, an array of anti-collision sensors and even virus-killing air conditioning. But the liquefied petroleum gas-hybrid taxi doesn’t come cheap, selling for $31,786.40 (¥3.5 million) — almost a third more than the Crown model it replaces.
“We wanted to build something that tried to please as many people as possible,” Hiroshi Kayukawa, the chief engineer who oversaw Japan Taxi’s development, told Reuters at Toyota’s headquarters in Toyota City.
The effort has not been without some wrong turns. Many drivers complained that the Japan Taxi wheelchair ramp was awkward and took too long to deploy. Operators worry about costs after transport ministry subsidies expire.
And the taxi’s complex design — conceived by a Transport Ministry committee with representatives from carmakers, taxi companies and advocates for the disabled — has scuttled at least one attempt to export it.
“I would give it 70 out of 100,” said Hiroaki Kaneko, a 20-year veteran driver for Hinomaru Kotsu, one of Tokyo’s leading taxi companies. “As a universal taxi I would give it 50.”
Although it wasn’t built with the 2020 games in mind, Toyota rolls it off the line with Olympics and Paralympic logos plastered on each side.
The carmaker hopes that Olympic sheen will help it replace a third of Tokyo’s 30,000 taxis before the Games. The event, which starts in July 2020, is expected to cost more than twice the initial estimate of ¥734 billion.
“We thought the Olympics would be a good way to increase the appeal of the car. We want to get it adopted as quickly as possible,” Kayukawa said.
A rush of pre-Olympic orders for the cab is helping Toyota generate sales for what the company says is a money-losing project.

Only 2,000 Japan Taxis are built each month, far below the number Toyota would normally consider viable, and a small fraction of the 28,000 cars the company produces every day globally.
A spokesman said the company’s rationale for the project was not profit, but “to contribute to the creation of a rich society by supporting the movement of many people with taxis.”
Government subsidies are giving taxi firms incentives to buy the vehicles.
Hinomaru Kotsu has already replaced half of its 620 taxis. By September two-thirds of the fleet will be Japan Taxis, said Satoshi Touma, who is in charge of vehicle management.
Hinomaru, like other operators, gets a transport ministry universal taxi payment and an eco-friendly vehicle subsidy from the Tokyo Metropolitan government. Combined, they cover most of the taxi’s extra cost, Touma said.
But those subsidies “will disappear once the Olympics end,” Touma added.
Overseas, Japan Taxi’s unsubsidized price tag dissuaded Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing, according to a Toyota executive who spoke to Reuters.
Didi, which “loved the fact that you can carry your small suitcase right on” and other purpose-designed features, asked Toyota about the taxi last year, the source said. But it decided it was too difficult to pare back the design and reduce costs, said the executive, who was not authorized to speak to the media and requested anonymity.
Toyota and Japanese officials have promoted Japan Taxi as providing accessibility for disabled travelers in Japan for the Paralympics.
On a rainy day in March, the Japan National Tourism Organization deployed two taxis to take US Paralympian Daniel Romanchuk and Canadian-born Josh Grisdale, a disabled tourism promoter, on a trip around Tokyo.
Romanchuk, who had just competed in the Tokyo Marathon, usually stows his wheelchair in the trunk when he takes a taxi, said his mother, Kim. The Japan Taxi allowed him to roll his wheelchair inside, but he had to wait in the rain as the driver attached the foldable ramp.
Grisdale, who uses a taller, bulkier electric wheelchair that is hard to fit in the Japan Taxi, traveled in a specialized van instead.
“It’s hard to find a one-stop solution; there are so many variables,” Romanchuk’s mother said.
The tricky ramp dented the taxi’s user-friendly image, and Kayukawa’s team redesigned it after drivers complained it was tricky to deploy.
“We probably over-engineered it,” he said.
His engineers had assumed the ramp would rarely be used, and decided it could be stashed in the trunk. They didn’t invite drivers to test it before production began, Kayukawa added.
The new, larger ramp is now stored under the rear passenger seat.
Hinomaru likes its Japan Taxis because they consume half the fuel of older vehicles and their anti-collision sensors have reduced accidents by 10 percent.
That means more profit amid worries about competitors such as Didi Chuxing and Uber Technologies, which is partnering with Toyota to develop car-sharing services.
Toyota made other tweaks when it addressed the wheelchair ramp problem. It also made the automatic sliding passenger door close 1.5 seconds faster, reduced rear windscreen wiper noise with an intermittent setting and lowered the money tray on the driver’s seat to reduce shoulder strain.
When the Olympics are over, Kaneko and Touma would like Toyota to make other changes, including a more spacious trunk, a bigger fuel tank and passenger windows that open.
The Ministry of Transport, Land and Infrastructure says there is more work to be done on the universal taxi project.
“We would like to a see another vehicle that fills a gap between Japan Taxi and more specialized wheelchair carriers,” automotive section official Daisuke Kakuya said.


Jane Fonda returns to civil disobedience for climate change

Updated 19 October 2019

Jane Fonda returns to civil disobedience for climate change

  • Jane Fonda plans to get arrested every Friday to advocate for urgent reduction in the use of fossil fuels
  • Getting arrested in 2019, poses some entirely new challenges: Fonda

WASHINGTON: Inspired by the climate activism of a Swedish teenager, Jane Fonda says she’s returning to civil disobedience nearly a half-century after she was last arrested at a protest.
Fonda, known for her opposition to the Vietnam War, was one of 17 climate protesters was arrested Friday at the US Capitol on charges of unlawful demonstration by what she called “extremely nice and professional” police. Fellow actor Sam Waterston was also in the group, which included many older demonstrators.
Now 81, Fonda said she plans to get arrested every Friday to advocate for urgent reduction in the use of fossil fuels. She hopes to encourage other older people to protest as well.
Getting arrested in 2019, poses some entirely new challenges, Fonda told The Associated Press in an interview.
These days, “they use white plastic things on your wrists instead of metal handcuffs, and that hurts more,” she said.
“The only problem for me is I’m old,” Fonda said. After her first arrest last week, she had trouble getting into the police vehicle because she was handcuffed behind her back and “had nothing to hang on to.”
On Friday, Fonda emerged from a cluster of officers and stepped smartly into the police wagon, her hands cuffed in front of her.
“Thanks, Jane!” some of the protesters called out.
“What would you tell President Trump?” someone in the crowd yelled to her earlier, as she and other protesters stood on their platform in front of the Capitol.
“I wouldn’t waste my breath,” she shouted back, drawing laughter.
The rally drew at least a couple of hundred people, young and old.
While Fonda has taken part in many climate demonstrations, she said Greta Thunberg’s mobilization of international student strikes and other activism, along with the climate writing of author Naomi Klein, prompted her to return to courting arrests for a cause.
Fonda cannot remember precisely which cause led to her last arrest in the 1970s.
She said her target audience now is people like her who try to cut their plastic use and drive fuel-efficient cars, for instance, but otherwise “don’t know what to do and they feel helpless,” she said. “We’re trying to encourage people to become more active, across the age spectrum.”
Especially in the US, young people appear to be driving many of the protests and rallies demanding government action on climate change, University of Maryland sociologist Dana Fisher said.
Nearly half of the people who turned out for a September climate protest in Washington were college age or younger, and a quarter were 17 or younger, for instance, Fisher said. Most were female.
On the other hand, it was older, white females who turned out for earlier protests during the Trump administration, like the women’s marches, Fisher noted.
“There’s a whole group of very activated, middle-age white women. They woke up after the election, and they haven’t gone back to bed,” Fisher said.
So far, those people have not been involved in the youth climate movement. Fonda’s efforts could “get them out there,” Fisher said.
If her efforts misfire, Fisher added, the older people risk making the movement look uncool.
Asked how she would answer any young climate activist who complained of being co-opted, Fonda said, “I would hug them.”
And she did just that with some of the teenagers and other young activists she invited up to the stage to speak.
“It’s a good thing that Jane is doing, to try to shift the paradigm so it’s not just falling on young people” to rally the public on fossil fuel emissions, said Joe Markus, a 19-year-old Washington-area student attending Friday’s protest.
Leslie Wharton, 63, from Bethesda, Maryland, sat out the Vietnam War protests that drew out Fonda. She came out Friday as part of a group calling itself Elders Climate Action.
Lots of people of all ages are worried about climate change and want to do something, Wharton said, but “us elders are retired or part-time. We can take the time.”