Your car wants to say hello... And that's only the start

 11 Jan 2017 - 18:57

Your car wants to say hello... And that's only the start
The Concept-i from Toyota showcases what the company expects cars will look like in 2030. It was revealed at CES in Las Vegas. (Handout courtesy of Toyota)

By Steven Overly / The Washington Post

Toyota's empathetic car of the future is there for you. You've had a frustrating day at work; it plays soft music and lowers the temperature. You're lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood; it offers to take over the driving. You start to nod off at the wheel; it taps you on the shoulder and starts up a conversation.

This unconventional interplay between the driver and automobile is central to concept cars that Honda and Toyota unveiled at a technology conference in Las Vegas this week. In the not-so-distant future, vehicles will not only be safer or more efficient. They also will be our companions, watching our every move.

These cars, which exist today only as partially functional concepts, will use powerful artificial intelligence systems to memorize and store information about every passenger's likes and dislikes, how they speak, and the places they frequent, all to make decisions the car feels are in the riders' interest.

The auto industry's pursuit of a hyper-personal experience comes as the very nature of automotive transportation is in flux. Many industry observers expect ride-sharing services will become more popular, with autonomous driving to follow. People may rely less on personal cars to get around, a prospect that is "going to change the business model of private car ownership dramatically," said Karl Brauer, a Kelley Blue Book analyst.

With the basic business of buying and selling cars potentially facing a major change in the decades ahead, information about drivers and passengers is likely to hold tremendous value for automakers. While this may also lead to greater convenience for motorists, it creates yet another platform where people's most sensitive data could be susceptible to privacy infringement and security hacks.

"Artificial intelligence and big data will make vehicles one of the most important windows into the habits of consumers next to their own phones and computers," said Ed Hellwig, the executive editor at Edmunds.com. "Automakers will know more than they ever have about how their vehicles are used, which could lead to entirely new designs and features."

As with concept cars past, Toyota and Honda's new vehicles could be seen as quixotic playthings for car heads and tech geeks. Concept cars are built to introduce bold ideas, practical and otherwise. But Robert Carter, Toyota's senior vice president of automotive operations, told an audience Wednesday at the International Consumer Electronics Show that components of its concept car will be tested on roads in Japan in the coming years.

What's more, nearly all of the concepts are rooted in technology already being honed today. Start-ups and legacy automakers alike are testing applications for AI and big data inside cars, and connecting those systems with phones, home appliances and the other Internet-enabled devices that permeate people's daily lives.

"Technology moves very slow until suddenly it doesn't," said Shawn DuBravac, a futurist and chief economist at the Consumer Technology Association. "It's almost like boiling water. It takes a long time to heat up, then suddenly, instantly, it's boiling."

Drivers who approach Toyota's Concept-i car will see "hello" projected on the car door, a greeting from an AI bot named Yui that designers call "the person who rides shotgun with you." Inside, the car will collect a trove of real-time data, such as pupil dilation, perspiration rate and vocal tone, to assess the driver's emotional state and alter the car to better fit their mood. Once Yui learns preferences for music, temperature, seat position and other features, it will automatically adjust settings before the driver even climbs in.

Yui will also scroll through social media channels to create "serendipitous" moments, such as recognizing that friends have checked in to a local restaurant and suggesting a stop there to grab a bite, as well.

"It's all subtle stuff, but the ultimate goal is to not have you aware that a lot of this stuff is happening. Suddenly when you're done, you have had a good experience," said William Chergosky, one of the car's designers.

Honda revealed its own concept car, called the NeuV, on Thursday. The AI assistant listens to the driver's phone conversations, automatically updating their calendar and route if plans change. If the driver is running late for a meeting, the car finds the fastest route. When there is time to spare, it might suggest stopping for coffee.

"The whole philosophy behind it is to create a much more emotional, human connection," said Nick Renner, the NeuV project leader.

The auto industry may be taking its cues from phone companies. Smartphones have evolved into personal lifelines that facilitate human interactions, make people's lives more convenient and store their most valuable information. That cars will one day have that same potential seems only natural, considering the amount of time people spend inside them each day.

The reimagining of cars and how people interact with them started from the inside out, a break from the past when a sleek exterior and under-the-hood innovations took precedent, Chergosky said.

"For many decades, car design was really focused on the mechanics of the car and on the manufacture," said Wendy Ju, executive director at Stanford's Center for Design Research. "In many ways, the in-car user experience was an afterthought; it needed to be good enough to be safe, or flashy enough to be featured, but the interaction was shallow."

In the near future, what a car learns about people could provide automakers lucrative new opportunities. A September 2016 report from consulting firm McKinsey estimated that carmakers could reap between $450 billion and $750 billion in revenue by 2030 from using car-generated data to develop new products and services.

While much of that conversation is speculative, analysts said it's not hard to imagine targeted advertising inside the car, or apps that allow people to make dinner reservations, buy merchandise or play games. That's especially true as cars become more autonomous and occupants devote less attention to the vehicle's actual operation.

Again, consumers shouldn't expect to find all of these technologies as advertised on showroom floors anytime soon or, perhaps, ever. Toyota envisions its concept car being realized by 2030, for example. Instead, it indicated where automakers see consumer needs and expectations moving in the coming decades.

"Like most concept cars, the vehicles at CES are eye-catching platforms for the behind-the-scenes technology that is still years away," Hellwig said.

The Department of Transportation proposed rules last month that require all new cars on the road to digitally "speak" to one another by 2020. This "vehicle-to-vehicle communication" allows cars to transmit data back and forth so that each is aware when another vehicle is rounding the corner, about to run a red light or might stomp on the brakes.

"Clearly the industry is moving in that direction. . . . I don't think that's a question at all," said Jeff Schuster, an analyst at LCM Automotive. "I just think it's a question of how quickly it becomes mainstream and in the mass market."

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