Individual profiling technology will soon enable an automatic correlation between home life and personal transport Driving might one day become the most expressive of all humanmachine interactions, if Japanese giants Toyota and Sony have their way. The two companies joined forces to launch a concept emoticar, p. o. d (personalisation on demand), at the recent Tokyo motor show.
A car that expresses and solicits emotion? Scoff ye not; even cynical western journalists liked it, says Toyota chief engineer Naoto Kitagawa.
'The idea behind it - a commonplace reference in Japanese culture - is that of an emotional connection between machine and human being, so it's easier for Japanese people to relate to this type of concept, ' says Kitagawa. 'We were a little worried whether overseas journalists would understand it, but we were actually overwhelmed by the positive responses.'
No wonder, as p. o. d makes ingenious use of 'smart' technologies both in the car and in the home, and uses the understanding it gains about its human family to make driving fun. The p. o. d has liquid-crystal eyes that light up when its driver approaches and a colour-coded face.
Low fuel makes it 'sad' and turn blue; torrential rain makes it 'frightened' (green). Red is for anger. The vehicle is also fitted with a horn that asks if it can overtake and it even has a tail.
Home learning The p. o. d monitors position, speed, acceleration, road and weather conditions, fuel consumption and even unexpected pedestrian or cyclist behaviour, and uses an array of ITC (information and communications technologies) to do this such as GPS (global positioning system) satellite navigation; signals from brakes, wipers and fuel gauge; and exterior peripheral cameras.
What really sets p. o. d apart is its relationship to its human drivers.
Each p. o. d has a 'minipod', a portable data terminal that learns both the media preferences, lifestyle choices and driving habits of individual family members. The minipod accompanies the family into the home, where it interfaces with a PC to record what websites you access and how often. It also communicates with the TV's EPG (electronic programme guide) to keep track of the shows you watch and assimilate all the information.
Every time a driver takes the minipod into the p. o. d, the minipod automatically updates p. o. d's preferences database. A display screen lets an individual log into his or her seat so it becomes their 'unique entertainment centre'. Toyota designer Simon Humphries (from Chester) explains: 'Each seat is its own environment, with virtual surroundsound speakers that focus in front of that person.'
Every move you make The car constantly monitors each family member's driving habits, using both its array of ITC and some biometric data it collects during driving. The p. o. d, which has no accelerator or brake pedals or steering wheel, is entirely controlled using a single drive-by-wire joystick. Electronic sensors in the drive controller check the driver's pulse and galvanic skin response to alter its feedback accordingly. Part of the p. o. d's database on each driver includes a profile of how that person drives customarily - on a regular route in moderate conditions - to which it assigns a series of numerical values representing 'normal'.
If you steer or brake too sharply, accelerate too quickly, or tailgate - 'p. o. d compares that data and understands you are doing something abnormal. It deduces that you're irate, or hurried. The p. o. d then acts on its understanding, to encourage a return to normal driving'.
'It's not artificial intelligence, exactly, ' says Humphries. 'Fuzzy logic is the nearest thing you could say to this. The thing can think for itself; it can learn and make decisions, following a set of rules; it reacts to a situation in a certain way and that reaction is different depending on the person. Should the same situation occur, the answer is not necessarily the same for different people - it's not as simple as 'if/then'.'
How p. o. d chooses to soothe you depends on its understanding of your preferences, says Kitagawa. 'It reacts in a way that suits you based on your likes and dislikes, ' - playing music, for instance, or offering to book a table at a favourite restaurant.
Does this really make p. o. d an emotional machine? Engineer Akira Shinada, Sony's p. o. d project leader, thinks so. 'The car is one of the best 'emotion detectors' in existence, ' he says. 'If you get angry you drive violently. Even now it is fairly easy to detect a driver's emotion when they are driving. All we have to do is collect all this information via sensors and analyse the resulting data.'
But can it, for instance, detect nuances? 'This is really just a question of know-how in relation to analysing data, ' argues Shinada. 'We would like to accumulate a lot of data - then we will be able to read even small changes in a driver's emotional state.'
Already it can detect a patronising tone when the driver talks to it.
It can learn from your reactions to assess whether it is soothing you correctly. If you get frustrated in a traffic jam and the computer plays classical music which makes you more irate, p. o. d quickly adjusts its behaviour. Humphries uses the analogy of a pet to represent p. o. d's learning over time, because 'it grows from the day you own it'.
Design differences The joint project team shows in its design. The symmetrical exterior resembles a Sony product; the seats are Sony blue, for example, but there was a clash of manufacturing cultures. 'The person who buys a car trusts it to save his life, ' says Kitagawa, 'so we have to be quite logical and dispassionate in our design. Our product development cycle is around three years, whereas Sony's is three to six months. Sony has to hit fashion on the nose whereas we had to consider issues like safety.'
Communication in the team was not exactly straightforward. In Japanese, they have a word for 'useful' but Sony's and Toyota's perception of this word were quite different. For Toyota, it was a measurable commodity, but for Sony, it meant the ability to form emotional attachments to the product.
The project has managed to overcome these differences, though both firms largely stuck to their own area of expertise. Sony designed the minipod, the individual speakers, the interactivity and display screen; Toyota designed the car itself; and the two teams worked together on the joystick.
Will p. o. d appear on UK roads sometime soon? Probably not, says Kitagawa. 'If we are honest, there are still a lot of challenges to overcome.'
Local and global communications infrastructure are not yet up to it;
current safety legislation prohibits a car varying its externals and lighting up; and driving by joystick is very difficult to handle.
However, with integrated components and a workable concept, it looks as if integrating home life and travel - liveability and mobility - may not be a science-fiction dream for much longer.
Liz Bailey is a freelance journalist who writes about technology, design and vehicles. Contact lizzie@lizzie. net