Will cars learn to love you one day, and thus win your love in turn? Toyota’s Concept i shows how this future might only be a few years away
TOKYO, JAPAN — Say you’re feeling grumpy one day while driving home from work. Someone with you can tell you’re in a bad mood, and puts on some music you like, then tries to cheer you up by suggesting that you go to your favourite place for dinner.
So far, so sweet. But what’s remarkable about this situation is that the “someone” will actually be your car.
At the Tokyo Motor Show 2017, which opens to the public on Friday, Toyota will showcase a number of concept vehicles that come with deep-learning artificial intelligence (AI). The Toyota Concept i embodies how this AI will be used in the near future.
While most of the car world scrambles to perfect electric propulsion and autonomous driving technology, Toyota is also working on cars that will come with an “AI Agent” that knows you as well as any family member.
Climb aboard and smile! You’re on AI camera
To pull this off, it does two main things. The AI Agent studies your face and voice to judge your mood, and can tell if you’re feeling one of five emotions: neutral, happy, nervous, irritated or tired.
It also uses GPS data to monitor where you like to go, and scrapes your social media feeds to learn about your likes and dislikes.
The system has already become adept at understanding Toyota’s internal testers, according to Makoto Okabe, the project’s general manager and a member of Toyota’s EV Business Planning Department. “Frankly speaking, as to emotion recognition, for a particular person the Agent is able to understand the condition of that particular person,” he says.
The goal is to make the system applicable to any user within three years. By then — just in time for the Tokyo Olympic games that Toyota is a title sponsor of — his team intends to have running prototypes that can actively demonstrate the technology. Long term, the aim is to create cars that are able to converse with users.
Three vehicles, one AI Agent to follow you around
Toyota wants such AI Agents in its cars because it wants people to fall in love with cars again; the name “Concept i” is a play on “ai”, the Japanese word for “love”.
The Japanese use the term “aisha” (meaning “beloved car”) as a term of affection for their cars. “Cars offer mobility, comfort and opportunities to see the unknown,” says Okabe. “They’ve become loved like a family member.”
But the Internet and virtual reality are a threat to this relationship, so the Concept i represents a way for Toyota to create an “aisha” for a new era. “Cars have to evolve in a world where we can enjoy all sorts of simulated experiences,” says Okabe.
The AI Agent is also present in the i-Ride, a battery powered, two-seater pod that Toyota envisions for car-sharing fleets. It has a range of 100 to 150km, and coloured lights that can offer cheery messages — remember, it knows what sort of mood you’re in.
Mindful of Japan’s ageing society, engineers have made it it wheelchair friendly (its gullwing door has a mechanism to help lift a folded wheelchair into the cabin). Users control it with joysticks instead of a conventional steering wheel and pedal set, and it has an automatic valet parking mode.
The goal is to make it as uder-friendly as possible, and since information about you that AI-equipped cars gather would be stored in a server, the AI Agent would be able to follow you into the i-Ride, the same way you can use the same Facebook account either on your phone or your laptop at work.
If you travel to an unfamiliar city, you could climb aboard an i-Ride at the airport and it would be able to suggest a local restaurant for you.
The same AI Agent would also be present in the i-Walk, a sort of three-wheel Segway with sensors that allow it to steer away from obstacles. It’s designed to let users hop aboard for otherwise walkable distances, and takes up no more space than a person would need.
One a single charge, the electric walker can travel 10 to 20km, says Toyota.
Given that all three of the Concept i vehicles are electric, and offer a glimpse at Toyota’s thinking with respect to the technology. The company wants its cars’ carbon emissions to fall by 90 percent by 2050, compared to the cars it produced in 2010, and is largely technology-agnostic about it.
But by placing heavy emphasis on hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles, Toyota risked being seen as having fallen behind in the race to put battery-powered cars on the road.
The Concept i is a reminder that Toyota can do electric as well as anyone — the sleek four-seater has a range of 300km on a single charge.
While carmakers rush to bring electric drive into the mainsteam against a backdrop of ever-tightening emissions restrictions, however, the AI-enabled features of Toyota’s Concept i vehicles raise one intriguiging possibly: in the future, sucess in the car game could be down to who best plays the game of love.