Romy Camargo is a perfect example of how a major car maker evolves into a "mobility company".
Camargo knows all about mobility and what it means to be without it. A former US special forces soldier in Afghanistan, he caught a bullet in the neck in an ambush in 2008 and was paralysed from the neck down.
Enter Toyota – for many years the world's biggest car maker – whose scientists showed up on Camargo's doorstep about a year ago bearing something not usually associated with car manufacturers: a robot.
The Human Support Robot, or HSR, is part of Toyota's avowed intention to help us move around town – but also to help us move across the room.
That's a big deal for people like Camargo; HSR, while not yet in production mode, is busy moving something else: the limits to how robots can help people like the quadriplegic ex-soldier.
Camargo has remained upbeat, determined to use his experience to help others. He and wife Gaby have opened the Stay In Step rehabilitation centre to help others like him make their way back to a life of purpose. He has raised money for charities and given inspirational speeches at schools and military establishments.
But here's why HSR is valuable. It can fetch things and open doors – tasks for which Camargo has previously needed someone else. He is in a motorised wheelchair but directs the robot using a mouth stick, freeing him and his nurse for more complicated tasks.
The robot finds its way around using 3-D cameras and lasers – just like a self-driving car. It identifies Camargo through facial recognition technology and objects in the home using QR codes. So Camargo can send the robot to fetch his bottle of water (he needs to drink nearly 6 litres of water a day to keep his kidneys running smoothly) without having to negotiate his home's tricky obstacles himself.
Facial recognition technology is also used for the robot to open the front door. That simple task can be a big problem for Camargo so a camera was placed outside the door – triggering the robot to press a button opening the door once it recognises Camargo's face.
The development of the HSR continues – the robot still needs humans to order it round but there is a clear path now to a day when, for example, such robots will operate much more independently, picking up household clutter so the elderly and inform do not trip and maybe filling up Camargo's water bottles itself.
It's all part of Toyota's move from car maker to mobility company – and is not just a single project or a few projects. Their new global advertising campaign (part of an eight-year initiative to support their Olympic and Paralympic games sponsorship) reinforces the "Start Your Impossible" campaign and rolls out a new positioning for the company: "When you're free to move, anything is possible."
Doug Moore, senior manager of Technology for Human Support at Toyota, says: "This includes developing solutions to assist people with limited mobility. We see our research with Romy and the HSR as a natural extension of our work as a mobility company, helping people to navigate their world."
The HSR's presence stems not just from mobility for the disabled but also for the elderly. Japan's rapidly ageing population is expected to see over-65s make up 40 per cent of the population in the next 30 years; in the US the same age group will make up 20 per cent of the population by 2030. In New Zealand, over-65s are forecast to make up to 22 per cent of the population by 2032.
Toyota has been developing robotic helpers for that ageing population for some time, dating back to 2007 when it launched its Robot Partner programme – designed to develop robots that can help with everyday life, including improving rehabilitation of sick and injured patients, help with walking, balance and posture and transferring patients from bed to bed.
In 2015, the company announced the Toyota Research Institute, to develop AI technologies for robots and autonomous cars, with a plan to pump US$1 billion into the institute by 2020, the same year Toyota will, at the Tokyo Olympics, reveal their latest thinking on how we will all move in the future.