The story takes place in what was, at the time of release, the near future of 1998–2002. Robots called "Labors" are employed in heavy construction work. TheTokyo Metropolitan Policehas its own fleet of Patrol Labors or Patlabors to combat crimes/terrorism and deal with accidents involving Labors. Thestory arcsusually revolve around Tokyo Metropolitan Police Special Vehicle Section 2, Division 2. Noa Izumi is the main protagonist of the series, but all of Division 2 play roles. Hata and Kusumi are main protagonists of the thirdPatlaborfilm.
The feature films follow a separate continuity, referred to as the "movie timeline", as opposed to the "TV timeline", with the Early Days OVA following the "movie timeline", and the New Files OVA following the "TV timeline". In addition, the manga follows its own continuity.