She had an AE86 but could no longer walk after a stroke, until Toyota stepped in
Hans · Nov 26, 2021 03:45 PM
Masami Urata is a woman in her 40s who loves to wear suits and heels. In her young days, she drove a Toyota AE86 to university, her favourite car that she bought using money she saved from her part-time job.
She graduated and spent the next 20 years working in the medical sector as a counselor and coordinator. At age 46, on one fine morning in July 2020, she collapsed on the floor in her house. Her daughter called for help and doctors diagnosed her with subarachnoid hemorrhage or bleeding in the brain, basically a stroke.
Like many stroke patients, the stroke left her semi-paralysed as her leg muscles had lost its ‘memory’ on how to walk, something which we all take for granted.
A fiercely independent and strong woman who raised her daughter Sui on her own, Masami was depressed following her loss of mobility, which is ironic considering that she is one who watches after her health very well.
“Why has this happened to me, when more than anyone I took care of my health and watched what I ate so that I wouldn’t cause trouble to anyone else? Why is life so unfair? Why is it me who has to go through this?” she told herself.
In her depressed state, she resented the hospital and refused to work with nurses on her rehabilitation. It was tough on her daughter too.
She gave up from trying any further treatment and insisted on going home but her doctor told her that they can’t discharge her until she goes for a follow-up treatment at Kumamoto Kinoh Hospital, which her doctor said “had something interesting for her to try.”
She grudgingly obliged, with no intention of cooperating. That is until she was brought into a room where a huge, fancier version of a treadmill, but with a big screen and suspenders hanging from the top.
The Toyota logo on the big white machine intrigued her.
“Is that Toyota as in the car maker Toyota?” she asked?
The therapist replied, “Yes, it’s a medical device made by Toyota. Do you want to try?”
Upon seeing a familiar brand that she had fond memories with her AE86 from her younger days, Masami’s mood changed and said, “Yes, please!”
The machine is called the Toyota Welwalk, a play of name of Toyota’s Welcab series of cars for persons with limited mobility. Many Toyota models sold in Japan are also offered in ‘Welcab’ variants, which offers swiveling front passenger seats, and wheelchair friendly access ramps in the rear.
No one must be left behind, ‘Mobility For All’ is Toyota’s other tagline
Toyota is a giant monolith of a company that isn’t very good at communicating its intentions, especially when speaking to audience outside of Japan. Just ask electric vehicle enthusiasts in the West what they think of Toyota.
The company’s Chief Communications Officer (CCO) Jun Nagata said during Toyota’s second quarter financial results briefing for financial year ending March 2022, “It is sometimes difficult to gain understandings of what we are conveying. And seeing that we are failing there is sometimes painful. We will continue to think about how we can get across our message that we, too, take BEVs seriously.”
Painful. Yes he used the word painful, an unusually candid expression that is extremely rare in Japanese companies’ typically reserved communication style. Nagata was responding to questions on criticism that Toyota is receiving, that the company is anti-BEV.
Explaining Toyota’s way of thinking will require a separate long post but in short, Toyota is trying to do the near-impossible. It wants to do everything, in all four corners of the world, marrying seemingly incompatible opposites.
It wants to offer low / zero emission vehicles in across all price points and in all countries regardless of their state of development, while still protecting jobs - challenges which all other car companies, from Ford, Mercedes-Benz to BMW have already gave up contemplating and embrace what they say is inevitable.
At the same time, Japan is an aging population country (which Malaysia too will become one by 2030) and issues related persons with limited mobility is a big concern. Why limit the focus to cars when more and more of the population won’t be able to drive? Again it’s a task that Japan looks to Toyota to solve.
Given the big scope of the company’s thinking, it’s easy to just zero in on one point that’s running against popular opinion, which is what is happening now.
The Welwalk is just one of Toyota’s many little-known efforts to help society move. The goal is not just about hybrids or electric cars, because that’s too narrow in thinking, but making sure everyone, rich or poor, young or old, will still have means to move around independently.
How to achieve this grandiose vision will be trialled at Toyota’s Woven City, a city of the future powered by clean hydrogen, moved by electric vehicles, assisted by robots, where technology promotes relationship-building physical contacts rather than replacing them with video calls.
“I have been asked so many times, ‘Why is Toyota doing this?’ People usually understand when I tell them that the mission we aim to fulfil is to provide opportunities to walk, which for humans is the most fundamental of any kind of mobility,” said Hitoshi Konosu, the creator of Welwalk and Project General Manager at the Healthcare Business Department., New Business Planning Division.
As of August this year, Toyota has produced 100 units of the Welwalk, and has been used in the rehabilitation of more than 5,000 patients.
The Welwalk project started in 2007, well before the trend of car companies rebranding themselves into a ‘mobility company.’
The first prototype actually worked pretty well, from an engineer’s point of view, but the Toyota team received a strongly worded rebuke from Professor Eiichi Saitoh of Fujita Health University, who himself has limited mobility on his right leg.
“That will not work at all. You have no appreciation or understanding of rehabilitation or patients.” said the professor, who also told them “You don’t have the first idea about motor learning theories.”
“When I think back now, I realize that the robot I created was rather too “me-centered,” with a self-indulgent focus purely on technology,” said Konosu.
Still, Professor Saitoh appreciated Toyota’s sincerity, and offered himself as a test subject and shared his expertise with Toyota.
“There’s a whole world of difference between ‘one can walk’ and ‘one becoming able to walk’,” the professor explained.
Unlike a child who knows no shame and happily takes a fall, teaching adults how to walk again is a lot harder and although we don’t think much about it, everyone walks in a slightly different manner, influenced by our weight and height, variations which makes it very difficult to therapists.
Professor Saitoh explained that if a robot could provide assistance, a person could be able to walk. However, simply providing assistance only serves to slowthe learning process, meaning that the person will not become able to walk themselves. Striking this fine balance between providing just the right amount assistance and keeping patients motivated is tricky.
Which is why the big screen is necessary for Welwalk. The big screen and multi-angle cameras provide visual feedback and a target for patients to place their left-right feet motion. The robotic attachment on the knee continuously adjusts to provide just the right amount of assistance, based on the patient’s weight, height, walking ability – customized and precise support that is impossible for a human therapist to provide.
In 2019, Professor Saitoh was succeeded by Professor Yohei Otaka. He had this to say:
“The (Toyota) team works much harder than you might think. As something is created through cumulative efforts while learning from frequent failures and missteps, this process has changed my image of Toyota and also the way I interact with it. My image has changed from Toyota being a ‘mega corporation’ to one that you could say is an ‘earthy and sweaty group of hard working people.’”
“Another thing you realize when you work together with Toyota is that it is a sincere company. Their approach is all about safety, and being careful when working to build something up. They work to ‘make things with integrity’ and I consider them a trustworthy partner.”
Today, Masami is able to walk on her own, albeit still with walking stick, but she is back to walking with the heels she so loves.
“Looking back on my life, Toyota has always been there at various turning points. The car that my father drove when bringing me back from the hospital after I was born was a Crown. I started my happiness-filled life safe in my mother’s arms, riding in a Toyota.
"Then when I was in my third year at high school the first car I fell in love with at first sight was the AE86. With the money I had saved from New Year’s gifts I received from a young age and the money I had earned from my part-time job, I bought one. During my university years I would spend weekends and holidays in my car, and although every day I had to study hard, the thought that my car was waiting for me in the car park gave me the incentive to carry on.
“Then I became pregnant with a new precious life, and the car that I brought my beloved daughter home from hospital in was a pure white Supra. At every turning point in my life Toyota had been there for me. Then, in the depths of my desperation, the name that sprang before my eyes once again was Toyota.”
She ended her interview with Toyota by saying, “Toyota aims to ‘produce happiness for all’, doesn’t it?”
During a presentation to investors in June 2021, Toyota President Akio Toyoda said:
“The Toyota Philosophy, which we compiled last year, also defined our mission as “producing happiness for all”.
“I believe that happiness can take various forms depending on the person. “Producing happiness for all” does not mean producing the same thing for everyone. Thinking through diversification and engaging in high-mix, low-volume production is the kind of “production of happiness for all” for which we aim,” he said.
“Looking at the 17 Social Development Goals (SDGs) as a set of squares laid out in three rows of six, you will see that the space for the last square is empty. It might be a decidedly arbitrary way of looking at it, but I believe that people’s happiness is the 18th goal.
“I interpret this to mean that only people who seriously strive to realize the (established 17) goals will be able to see a world of the 18th goal.”