HINO FLATFORMER AT THE 46TH TOKYO MOTOR SHOW: Driverless, multi-personality, transporter of the future

    The Hino Flatformer concept truck showing one of its possible applications as a high tech recycling center.
    The Hino Flatformer concept truck showing one of its possible applications as a high tech recycling center.

    IT looks more like a skateboard than a truck. A driverless electric vehicle—which is essentially a low-riding cargo bed, which can accommodate various functional modules—anything from a passenger bus to a beauty shop to a cargo container, and can be swapped when necessary.

    This is exactly how Hino Motors, one of Japan’s leading manufacturer of commercial vehicles, presented its “Flatformer” concept vehicle. On display at Hino’s booth as the Tokyo Motor Show 2019, it is most innovative execution, and is listed as the “battery-electric model truck of the future.”

    With a cargo hold composed of stacked storage boxes that could be sorted out using a swapping mechanism that works like a kid’s slide puzzle, the system would help parcel delivery companies to sort, load and deliver goods more efficiently. But that is just one concept.

    Multi-passenger mini-transporters could be the future of the Philippine jeepney. The next generation food truck, a mobile health center, a moving call center, an on-the-scene hospital during disasters or even a mobile massage and spa center. The possibilities are endless because the Flatformer is basically an open-source design.

    Its skills and strength comes from two main components.

    First, is the unique rigid chassis that cleverly carries the whole weight of the vehicle while, spreading the weight of its load over the width of the frame.

    The second is the compact modular technology of the drivetrain wherein entire components reside within the wheel housing. This innovative idea takes away component parts such as the axle, leaf springs, shock absorbers, and driveshaft from taking up needed space.

    Instead, a single part with the electric motor, suspension and brakes, and electronic controls enclosed, are mounted to the sides of the frame to create the fully flat chassis.

    “The idea is to produce only one form of truck bed upon which businesses can change or customize what they put on it depending on what they need or what services they offer at that moment. It is like changing the personality of the vehicle when it is demanded by the customer. Also, there is no need for a driver, thus no need for a front cab. It will all be autonomous,” Kunihiko Watanabe of Hino’s Future Project Group, Corporate Design Division explained.

    The FlatFormer is seen as the innovative solution that can change the concept of cargo mobility. Since it will be made available based on a subscription, instead of a leasing model, companies need not purchase it, but instead pay Hino a fee for the use of the vehicle when needed. This cuts down the cost of maintenance to almost nothing. And like any normal subscription service, payment is per use.

    “The idea of the Flatformer is for greater efficiency. It will make the mobility of people and goods, not also faster, but also relatively cheaper because of lower capital outlay over the long term. Since Hino owns the running machine, there is no need to invest in the hardware itself,” Watanabe explains.

    It can evolve mobility to whatever is needed at a particular moment—an important characteristic of the digital age where both personalization and immediate gratification are success determinants. Operated entirely by a connected network, possibly a Cloud service, the movement of each vehicle can be tracked, traced and run autonomously. It can even be programmed in conjunction with other Flatformers on the road.

    Since it is a mobile space that delivers services directly it can also be reconfigured quickly if there is a big demand for transporting people such as during rush hour, for example, more can be deployed to do that service.

    For commuters, it can also be the “last mile” carrier that can hook up with bigger buses or even trains. Theoretically, passengers can step on-board the mini-bus connected by a small platform even while in motion.

    “This is the excellent value that the Flatformer can provide. It becomes efficient in cost and operation so that businesses can focus on making customers happy, or providing good services. Hino’s presentation of the Flatformer shows our vision of creating a sustainable and people-focused future by reinventing the concept of mobility to deliver new value,” Watanabe added.

    Though the production versions of the Hino Flatformer is most likely years away, Watanabe says that the demands of the market both in Japan and globally can accelerate the development of autonomous driving transporters and Hino is ready when that happens.