Imagine a passenger in your car that is never wrong with directions, keeps you in good spirits and will check your e-mail while you're driving. That vision of the future is being presented by Nissan Motor at the Tokyo Motor Show 2007, which opens to the public this weekend.
Of course, this passenger isn't a human being but a small robot called Pivo-kun. Mounted in the dashboard of the company's Pivo 2 concept car, the robot is more than just a toy and has an important safety role to play. Using cameras in its eyes, it can determine if the driver is under stress or tired and suggest a rest.
"We have data that happy drivers' accident rates are drastically lower than depressed ones, so this robot stays there to make sure the driver is happy always," said Masato Inoue, chief designer at Nissan's exploratory design group, in an interview at the Motor Show. "This guides the driver and sometimes cheers up the driver. For example, if the driver is irritated it might say 'Hey, you look somehow angry. Why? Please calm down.'"
It doesn't take a robot to do this. The same function could be accomplished by cameras mounted in the car's dashboard, but Inoue said there's a conscious choice behind the robot.
"This makes a kind of intimate relationship between the car itself and the driver," he said.
The mood recognition technology is currently being trialed in real-world tests by Nissan. A camera mounted in front of the driver monitors eye movement to detect when the driver might be sleepy. This triggers the seat belt to tighten and this movement will hopefully snap the driver out of their drowsiness or prompt them to take a rest. A voice alert also sounds and a message pops up on the car's navigation screen.
The Pivo 2 concept car is aimed at the millions of young women who live in Japan's cities. They call themselves "paper drivers" -- a reference to the driving license they hold but rarely use -- and when they do get behind the wheel they don't tend to be the most capable drivers on the city's streets.
For them, other innovations have been added to the all-electric car, which looks like a sort of bubble on wheels and is intended to be used for short runs and commuting.
The entire cabin can turn through 360 degrees so you never have to worry about looking behind when you back up. In fact, in the Pivo 2 you never have to back-up or even parallel park. The wheels can twist 90 degrees, so when you find a parking spot, all you have to do is pull up alongside, twist the wheels and cabin and drive in sideways.
With such an impressive concept, the obvious question was: When might we see it?
"I think it's going to be around 2015, maybe," said Inoue. "This is a concept car, so it's not for tomorrow morning, but all the technology here is pretty realistic. Cost-wise there are many hurdles. The battery cost is very expensive, but like a mobile phone, when we looked at this for the first time it was big thing, heavy thing, very expensive, but now it's a commonsense tool."