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Old 08-04-2008, 07:40 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Robot in disguise?

TOKYO (AP) -- Toyota has developed a motorized stand-up-and-ride Segway lookalike designed to help people scoot around at malls and airports.

But the "Winglet," shown Friday in Tokyo, takes some getting used to. A demonstrator was visibly worried about its safety while accompanying a reporter who cautiously tried it on a short course in a Toyota showroom.

Toyota officials insist anyone can learn to ride it with some practice, including the elderly - its major target buyer.

Still, Toyota Motor Corp. has no plans yet to turn the Winglet into a commercial product. The Japanese automaker will start testing the two-wheeler this year at an airport and resort complex and next year at a shopping mall, all in Japan, to get user feedback. Overseas test plans are undecided.

The Winglet goes up to 3.7 mph, about the same speed as pedestrians, far slower than 12.5-mph Segway, which costs $5,000. The Winglet can go about 3 miles before needing to be recharged.

It is designed to stop easily with little pressure, pivot full-circle and go smoothly over bumps on roads. And it is designed to respond almost intuitively - moving forward when you lean to the front, and turning when you sway to the right or left, similar to skiing. One of three models shown comes with a protruding handle that can be grabbed and used like a steering wheel.

Toyota executive Takeshi Uchiyamada, who zipped around on a Winglet as though he was on a skateboard, said the company is experimenting with new ways of mobility as part of a company strategy to spread robotics.

"We hope to create friendly robots that can exist side by side with people," Uchiyamada said. "Winglet will help everyone move around safely and stay active."

Winglet evolved out of Toyota's takeover of parts of Sony Corp.'s robotics division last year. Sony, reshaping itself under Chief Executive Howard Stringer, decided to focus on electronics and wipe out its Aibo pet robot and other peripheral businesses.

Toyota envisions a future in which Winglet will be packed with wireless technology so it relays shopping information at stores. Or it may move on its own, Uchiyamada said. So it might go recharge its batteries itself, or come pick you up when you beckon it, toting your luggage.
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