Toyota's Kevin Hunter introduces the Urban Utility concept vehicle

Toyota’s Kevin Hunter introduces the Urban Utility concept vehicle

On Wednesday, Toyota unveiled a concept car not at an auto show, but to a panel of makers. It was a first of its kind and it was hosted by Make:, and with good reason — the car, called the U2, was designed with makers in mind.

The makers, nearly a dozen, from bay-area institutions like the University of California and NASA, to startup founders and artists, crowded around the vehicle at San Francisco’s historic Palace of Fine Arts. Toyota was here, said Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota’s North American design studio, to get feedback from makers, asking “How’d we do with this thing?”

And feedback they got. Within minutes the crowd wanted to know, was it hackable? Would Toyota release an API, or CAD files, so they could design accessories for the boxy, cargo-enabled rear end? Could they 3D print accessories? When Toyota says “customizable” does that mean you can choose features at the dealer, or customize it yourself? The larger point was, don’t just serve makers — incorporate them. Make the car a platform, let a community grow around it.

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At the concept stage, Toyota doesn’t have a lot of answers. The U2 stands for Urban Utility, designed to capitalize on the growing urban population who exhibit traits of entrepreneurship, self-reliance, maker culture, and DIY. It’s supposed to be playful, yet utilitarian. It’s not just for makers; it’s well suited to small businesses, outdoor use, or musicians.

“Basically, we wanted to make a car that looks like a tool — a good looking tool,” says Jin Kim, design manager for interior and exterior. “It’s a lifestyle-enabling car that allows you to do what you can’t with a regular car.” Everything in the interior can be moved or removed, from seats to dash. A creative rail attachment system will allow owners to move accessories around the inside, from overhead to the bed to the tailgate. A surfboard or a bike is an easy fit; the interior holds up to a 4’x8′ piece of plywood.

Kim recalls a visit to Maker Faire, where he saw the customized ride built by the Drone Dudes, which provided some inspiration. “I’d be curious to see how people would customize this car to their needs,” he says.

As if in answer to that question, panelist Eric Paulos suggested adding features so it interacts with its owner or passers-by even when parked. Jonathan Cook brought up the issue of power — would the owner be able to siphon power for projects while maintaining a reserve so the car would still start? Jess Hobbs wondered if the car would support heavy welding equipment.

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Don’t expect to see the U2 available soon. As a concept, it may reach production, or it may simply inform design considerations on future vehicles. “We designed it, mainly for us internally to have a discussion about its potential to be a car that is produced,” Hunter says.

Still, as Peter Hirshberg, the panel’s moderator, pointed out, cars have historically been about freedom and defining are culture. If that’s still true, this event could be an indication of where our culture is headed.

In that spirit, the U2‘s public unveiling will be next week, at World Maker Faire New York. What would you look for in the ultimate maker vehicle?