Toyota is creating cars that will love you back

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Tokyo Motor Show 2017

Toyota Concept-i
Toyota Concept-i a star at the recent Tokyo Motor Show. -- KAP MACEDA AGUILA

By Kap Maceda Aguila

TOYOTA veritably threw a curve ball to purists dreading or decrying the increased autonomy of vehicles and the perceived death of “the cars we love.” Even as its Executive Vice-President and board member Didier Leroy declared at the auto giant’s expansive Tokyo Motor Show exhibit area recently that, “Starting today, Toyota is more than a car company. We’re a human movement company,” before showing off its slew of bleeding-edge mobility solutions, select members of international media were hustled to a separate location for a deep dive into the company’s vision of the future.

A short video served as a prelude to the session. It spoke of cars not just offering “mobility, comfort, and opportunities” but being “loved like a family member.” Professing affection for this essentially nonliving thing is exactly one of the aspects about the present motoring experience that purists want to preserve — an intangible bond between owner and vehicle.

Toyota articulates its challenge in a missive to “create the beloved car of the future.” The highly advanced Concept-i series, said Mr. Leroy, “can capture your state of mind and keep you engaged to reduce risk factors of accidents. It understands what you like, what you want to do, to establish a new relationship with you.” The artificial intelligence (AI)-imbued vehicle is expected to learn, protect and inspire its occupants/driver.

AI can assess the driver’s mood and even level of alertness by reading his or her expression, body language, and even tone of voice through an “emotion evaluation dashboard.” This AI, personified in a “virtual companion” named Yui, was first unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. A writer had described Yui as “part co-pilot, part travel guide, and part spa attendant, all the while getting to know you over time.”

Toyota said drivers can have a conversation with Yui, which also has the ability to change the ambient lighting in the vehicle, and even deploy a specific aroma within the cabin depending on the occupant’s mood. It can even activate the seat massage function, or automatically adjust air-conditioning. Over time, the system learns preferences and accumulates personal information — yes, like friend or family. The “relationship” borne of Yui’s ever-increasing knowledge of the driver will be stored in the cloud, so it can be “moved” to whichever vehicle the driver uses — provided, of course, it features a similar system.

Truth to tell, Yui won’t be commercially available anytime soon, but all signposts appear to point to the same destination of full automation.

At the session, a video presentation was aired featuring Toyota Motor Corporation President Akio Toyoda, who was once famously against self-driving vehicles — until he met a couple of people whose lives were adversely affected by car accidents they or their loved ones were involved in. Mr. Toyoda also rued that about 1.3 million lives around the world are lost due to road accidents. This is simply unacceptable.

“I realized how important autonomy could be and how it could dramatically improve the quality of one’s life,” Mr. Toyoda said. “[I] want to make accidents a thing of the past, [and] autonomy should not be viewed as a replacement for the driver. Autonomy would actually enhance the pleasure of driving, if you are confident that the car will always protect you.”

The chief executive’s epiphany has obviously hastened the car maker’s developmental work on the next generation of vehicles with a view towards Level 5 automation (the highest level or driverless, according to SAE International).

Notwithstanding the enthusiasm and earnest work put in by Toyota, advancing up the totem pole towards autonomous vehicles is a tough task because of the myriad of obvious liability issues should something goes wrong. Other potential trouble spots are the risk of hacking and data privacy issues. As proven by controlled tests years ago, today’s advanced cars can be remotely hacked into — with potentially disastrous results. A past Fortune article quoted researchers who called today’s vehicles “computers on wheels that crafty hackers can penetrate under the right circumstances.” Meanwhile, if a vehicle has the ability to amass data about its owner, someone might be able to maliciously hack into this treasure trove.

Which is why Toyota is going about the task at hand very deliberately, remembering to cross the “ts” and dot the “is.” The company also works under no illusions as it reminds people not to “over trust” the technology even as while learning to love it. Still, the endgame is clear — “an ideal traffic society without accidents.”

Concluded Mr. Toyoda; “In this race to autonomy, we believe in one thing above all: safety first.”