How Tokyo's futuristic taxis are trying to combat the coronavirus

A new fleet of taxis in the Japanese capital contain air purification systems that can trap and kill airborne virus particles​​​​​​​, along with a host of other high-tech features

Panasonic Nanoe air purifiers are fitted inside the air conditioning vents on both the JPN’s dashboard and in the back seat of the taxi. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell
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It was right there in front of me in a Tokyo taxi – a piece of technology that will be instrumental in making visitors feel safe as they return to the city. Yet I barely noticed the understated digital tool during my 15-minute ride through the Japanese capital late last year.

Foreigners catching these taxis during the will be able to communicate with the driver using wearable instant translation devices

When Tokyo began rolling out its new, ultra-modern JPN taxis before the 2020 Olympic Games, most observers, including myself, marvelled at their high-tech touchscreens and payment devices while ignoring one innovation that is now crucial amid the pandemic – an air-purification system that can trap and kill airborne viral particles.

Panasonic Nanoe air purifiers are fitted inside the air conditioning vents on the JPN's dashboard and in the back seat. Panasonic says that this Nanoe technology can inhibit up to 99.99 per cent of viruses. It does this by taking the air within a space, filtering it of any harmful micro particles such as bacteria or mould, and then releasing clean air.

Although it’s not a foolproof tool to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, this purification system is valuable on public transport, given the airborne nature of the virus.

The JPN is Toyota's first new taxi model in 22 years. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell

The ease with which the coronavirus can be transmitted through the air on public transport was underlined by a recent Chinese study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, of a bus trip taken by a person who had Covid-19. While travelling on a badly ventilated bus in the city of Ningbo in China, that person managed to infect more than 20 other passengers, including some who were seated a significant distance away.

All the more reason, then, to hail one of Toyota's JPN taxis. Their air-purifying systems could ease the concerns of travellers, athletes and officials who attend the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics next year. Long renowned as the world's most modern nation, Japan plans to use the Olympics to display its technological savvy to a global audience. It is set to use driverless taxis and buses, teams of robot helpers, real-time language translation tools and facial recognition devices at Olympic venues, as well as virtual-reality technology to train staff.

The taxis also feature high-tech touch screens and payment devices. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell

To do all of this, Japanese car maker Toyota set about creating the JPN, its first new taxi model in 22 years. Similar in appearance to London's famous black cabs, the JPN has more in common with a van than with its low-slung, sedan-style predecessor.

When a JPN arrived to pick me up from outside Tokyo's Imperial Palace, I noticed several major improvements on the outdated Crown that tourists will appreciate. The wide sliding doors and low floor make it far easier to get in and out of the car, especially for elderly or disabled passengers, some of whom will be grateful for its wheelchair ramp.

The boot has more space for luggage, and the much larger windows offer a better view while sitting in the roomier rear seats, which are heated. City information is provided by the touchscreen in the back of each front-seat headrest. Similarly useful is the one-touch card payment device that stopped me from fumbling through my wallet for Japanese yen coins. I had no need to use one of the JPN's many smartphone charging ports, but was impressed by their presence.

Foreigners catching these taxis during the Olympics will be able to communicate with the driver using wearable instant translation devices, to be offered for rent or purchase during the event. Some other taxis and buses will not have a driver at all. The Tokyo authorities, for the past two years, have been running trials of driverless public transport, which will be used in a limited capacity at the Olympics.

The athletes will be the biggest beneficiaries of this technology owing to the presence of a fleet of driverless Toyota e-Palette minibuses, which will ferry them around the Olympic Village. Intercity transport will also be updated for the games, with a new Shinkansen Supreme bullet train, capable of travelling 300 kilometres per hour, being introduced on the Tokyo to Osaka route.

Tourists who want information on public transport, or a wide variety of other topics, can consult one of the robots moving around the Olympic venues. Called Human Support Robots, these machines have touchscreens that spectators can access. They will be complemented by mascot robots that greet spectators and athletes, humanoid robots that film live action and beam it to other locations and field support robots that retrieve items thrown by athletes during events such as the javelin and shot put.

Thanks to all the innovations, the event in Tokyo truly promises to be the Olympics of the future. Yet who would have thought that, among all this technology, a humble air purifier would end up being the star.