The Auris hybrid and its petrol-electric engine is the product of innovative thinking. We take a cross-country road trip to seek out other equally ingenious innovations.

Clever invention, engineering ingenuity and smart technology all went into creating the Auris hybrid, and its award-winning Hybrid Synergy Drive system – combining petrol and electric power – which represents a new way of automotive thinking.

We took this unique small family car on a journey of discovery to seek out equally ingenious 21st-century innovations. Our first stop was Hull’s Scale Lane Bridge, a swing footbridge. This striking, finned black structure, provides a unique pedestrian option from the medieval Old Town and Museums Quarter to the state-of-the-art aquarium on the opposite bank. Opened in June 2013, this award-winning bridge, designed by architects Jonathan McDowell and Renato Benedetti, is the first of its kind in the UK. It represents a rethink of what a bridge should be.

It is designed not just as a crossing, but a place in itself: a destination. It’s also an event – when the bridge opens, crowds gather to watch.

From above, its shape resembles a giant apostrophe. Powered by electric motors, it rotates like an oversized pinball flipper around a 650-tonne concrete counterbalance, on the circular hub, which balances the cantilever span. It takes two minutes to swing gracefully into position. Uniquely, pedestrians can remain on the bridge – and even step on and off – while it’s moving. And, instead of flashing lights and klaxons, gently pulsing lights and a sound installation of bells and birdsong, announces the bridge opening, which it does several times a week for industrial barges to sail up and down the River Hull.

Hundreds ride the bridge

“But we open it on weekends too, just so the public can enjoy it,” says engineer Steve Hackett. During a summer weekend hundreds of people ‘ride’ the bridge. “Some of the legislation the bridge has to comply with is actually for fairground equipment because there’s nothing else like it,” says Steve. Like this playful piece of modern architecture, our Auris Hybrid is packed with innovation, yet drives just like a normal automatic car, albeit an unusually quiet, smooth one. Press the ‘start’ button and there’s no engine noise, just a polite beep and a light to tell you it’s ready to go. In town, where electric power is most efficient, fuel economy is outstanding, with almost 80mpg possible. And with ultra-low CO2 emissions of 84g/km or less, it’s one of the cleanest cars around.

Our exploration takes us onto Sammy’s Point – a former shipyard where the River Hull meets the Humber, and now an area that is home to innovative new structures. The Deep is a state-of-the-art aquarium complex constructed from reflective aluminium and glass, resembling a giant iceberg piercing the sky. Designed by Terry Farrell – architect of the iconic MI6 headquarters on the River Thames – it can be accessed via Hull’s Millennium Bridge, with its great jutting yellow counterweight slab forming a distinctive landmark.

Next door is the impressive Tidal Barrier with its 212-tonne gate designed to protect the low-lying city. It’s lowered several times a year and during the 2013 tidal surge, the gate saved 19,000 homes from flooding.

Like the barrier, the Auris, too, is designed to protect. LED daytime lights and heated mirrors ensure you can see and be seen on the iciest morning, while steering wheel-mounted controls let you operate the DAB radio and MP3 player while keeping your eyes firmly on the road.

Slotting the Prius-like shifter into Drive, we continue our journey, powered by the near-silent electric motor, and follow directions from Toyota’s clever Touch 2 with Go navigation and multimedia system. Loaded with easy-to-use apps, the system will even read out phone messages thanks to its text-to-speech function.

The smart satnav guides us to Hull’s other great river crossing – the elegant Humber Bridge, once the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world that can be traversed on foot, by bicycle or car. Crossing it takes us from East Yorkshire into Lincolnshire, where we head south.

With its huge skies above miles of flat farmland, Lincolnshire is the perfect base for the Red Arrows display team. And as we pass their HQ at RAF Scampton, a formation of scarlet Hawk trainer jets is inscribing faultless smoke loops on the sky.

We stop to watch, awestruck at this display of consummate skill married to technology, before pressing on towards Leicester and our next destination, The National Space Centre.

Onto the National Space Centre

The Centre was designed by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, who also created the biomes of Cornwall’s Eden Project, and utilises the same high-tech material to create its 42m Rocket Tower. Clad in transparent ‘pillows’ of plastic film, the tower is striking enough in daylight and even more spectacular when illuminated with coloured light displays, giving the impression that a beautiful spaceship has landed. Conceived by scientists at the University of Leicester, the Centre is the headquarters of the National Space Academy, training the brightest young scientists for careers in Britain’s booming space businesses.

“Leicester University has a strong space-research pedigree,” says Josh Barker, from the Centre’s space communications team. “From the mid-60s they’ve had instruments in space.” Exhibiting artefacts from moon rock to rockets and satellites to spacesuits, the Centre celebrates Britain’s often unsung contribution to space exploration, and has been visited by astronauts Buzz Aldrin, who with Neil Armstrong made history as the first men to walk on the moon, and Chris Hadfield, the famous Space Oddity-singing astronaut who lived aboard the International Space Station.

Soon after opening in 2001, the Centre became mission control for the Beagle 2 Mars probe attempt. The craft vanished as it entered the fiery Martian atmosphere on Christmas Eve 2003 and the mission, led by one of Britain’s best-loved boffins, the late Professor Colin Pillinger, is remembered as an heroic failure but which inspired enormous public interest. Today, the former Beagle 2 control room is the Space Centre’s ‘Mars Yard’ – a replica of the Martian surface used by a space vehicle company to test the next generation of interplanetary probes. “They bring their rovers to try them out on our bit of Mars,” says Josh.

Development of automatic systems has been key to space-vehicle manoeuvrability, as recently seen during the landing of the Philae robotic lander on the fast-moving Comet 67P. Closer to home, Toyota’s automatic technology takes the stress out of driving. The Auris is equipped with the very latest super-smart Intelligent Park Assist system, which senses your surroundings and gently manoeuvres the car into even the tightest of spaces. And steep inclines present no problem with Hill Start Assist Control which automatically applies the brakes to prevent you rolling backwards.

Technology has come a long way in the 500 years since Hull’s Old Town was built – with bridges that spin clear of river traffic, a robot that can land on a comet 500 million miles away and intelligent cars that park themselves – and Toyota will continue to be at the forefront of technological development. So here’s to the next 500 years of clever innovations...