Toyota revealed a new concept vehicle with a virtual companion named Yui built-in at CES this year. The Concept-i goes beyond the average concept car, with an in-car experience that gives the driver an AI partner that acts as part copilot, part travel guide and part spa attendant, all the while getting to know you better over time.
I took a ride with Yui via Toyota’s CES show floor demo station, which recreates Yui’s cockpit and provides a simulated version of what a true Yui experience would be like.
To start things off, I used a Microsoft Surface to tell Yui (voiced by a male actor, by the way, a rarity among modern virtual assistants) a bit about myself. This would normally happen from social cues, like linked social network accounts and devices, to get to know its driver more organically, but I filled out a short questionnaire about what I like to do with my spare time and with whom, along with my name to shortcut the process for the purpose of the demo.
Once that was done, I entered the car and Yui greeted me, asking about my destination preferences. It offered three possibilities, all around the Bay area, but also suggested a day of shopping in downtown San Francisco as the top option based on what I’d just told it about my habits. I could also ask Yui simple questions not related to the trip specifically, like weather, and it was able to step a bit outside of its main domain to provide more info.
Once I confirmed with a simple vocal response that I was happy with Yui’s destination choice, we were off. A Toyota rep explained that at this stage I was still in manual driving mode, since we were in an urban environment on city streets. The heads-up display still identified and projected highlights around pedestrians and other potential road hazards, however, and in fact Yui simulated taking control to engage emergency braking at one point in manual mode, which it’ll do when it deems it necessary to avoid an accident.
Once on the highway, the experience changed considerably. The seat reclined as Yui entered self-driving mode, indicated by a change in the color of its main circular icon on the dashboard from blue to purple. The path marker on the HUD also changed to purple, and dash lighting started displaying an ambient pulsing pattern which Toyota says is designed to help trigger your body to enter relaxation mode.
Something else happened – the driver’s seat started giving me a really good lower back massage, which is actually hugely appreciated after days of walking around Vegas with a heavy backpack. Media could also be projected on the HUD, a Toyota rep explained, for another option for relaxing while in highly automated driving mode.
Once we exited the freeway, Yui returned me to manual control, bringing the driver’s seat back to a driving position. It also picked out some popular local tourist spots, and ended up selecting one that seemed like it would match my preferences and directed me there.
Yui ended up being courteous and helpful throughout the drive. The car also showed me an emotional map of my ride, since it had been analyzing my facial expressions throughout and could identify when I seemed happiest or most excited. Toyota says it would eventually be able to crowdsource this data and offer navigation options that provide not only the fastest route, but also the “happiest,” for example.
Where Toyota sees Yui adding value is in building a real relationship with its human driver, however. Yui is designed to live in the cloud, and to transfer from vehicle to vehicle as an owner buys new cars (or uses car-sharing services). A demo video of Yui from Toyota envisions a man forming a 20-year bond with his own Yui assistant, with the AI knowing about his family, interests and personality very deeply.
Yui is probably still a long way from real-world launch; Toyota’s own Research Institute has said confidently that self-driving is still a long way off. Questions like how much and when to trigger relaxation in a driver definitely complicate this, and while Toyota told me that it’s done a lot of work to help Yui do both those things now, it’s going to take a while and a lot of study before they find the right, safe balance.
Still, Yui presents an interesting, unique view of what it might be like to live with a constant AI companion. The potential of an on-demand chauffeur that also knows what to do to help you relax while on the road is very intriguing. It’s also extremely weird to imagine making a lifelong, bonding friendship with automobile software – like having an advanced Tamagotchi that can zip you around at speeds of 60 MPH or more.