Toyota's coolest concept car will entertain, connect and then kill you

'Smartphone on wheels' is so connected driver will be too busy to steer

It's difficult thing to say without reinforcing the warped view of the U.S. Supreme Court that corporations are people, but the announcement of a concept car at a major Tokyo auto show yesterday makes it painfully clear that Toyota Motor Corp. has lost its mind.

Yesterday Toyota put out a press release, pictures and clinically significant statements from the company's president touting its display of a car at this week's Tokyo Motor Show that is says more about Toyota's desperate need to be hip than it does about Toyota's engineering or IT skills.

The two-door, Fun-Vii (a name with no apparently logical origin) looks more like a giant computer mouse with wheels than it does a car.

The result is actually pretty cool, but not so flamingly obvious that even your favorite motorhead would be able to identify important things about the Fun-Vii just by looking at it – like which end is the front.

It is packed with very cool implementations of new and newish information technology, some of which will probably show up as standard equipment in other cars in the future, some of which should never be applied in this way to a vehicle to which humans entrust their lives.

Even the most useless or ridiculous gadgety bolt-ons are pretty cool, which is what makes clear the Fun-Vii is the product of a creative but critically flawed mind, rather than simply the highest pile of buzzwordy acronyms Toyota could fit on a four-wheel chassis without allowing anything to fall off.

The coolest is a series of panels that let passengers or drivers change the look of the patent-leather-black surface of the car by launching or changing digital images that will display on both the inside and outside skins of the "vehicle."

In the initial concept version the only displays on the outside are on the door panels; any theoretical production version would have similar displays on the roof, trunk and hood, according to Toyota's release.

On the inside, "the whole of the vehicle interior can function as a display space…freely adjustable to the moment. Content such as navigation information is blended seamlessly into the interior through the use of augmented reality."

By changing displays the whole interior of the vehicle can be changed on a whim "to match the mood of the moment," according to Toyota.

The car has its own wireless network connection – two, in fact – that allow it to connect to local cell networks to download GPS and traffic data and updates for media-display software and media content to display.

It has a "navigation concierge" designed to provide driving and location data through the same kind of vocal interface I habitually turn off in my own car because it's distracting to hear the little voice get more and more frustrated that my ability to get lost is so much greater than its ability to prevent that.

The second network interface is a car-to-car, peer-to-peer Bluetooth or Near Field Communications (NFC) link being developed to let cars with video, radar or motion sensors warn one another of their presence and proximity (presumably using a harsh Brooklyn cab driver voice and the automotive equivalent of profanity rather than the wrapped-too-tight, emotionally brittle-sounding American or British voices that come standard on most GPSs that talk to humans rather than each other).

Car-to-car links are designed to help avoid accidents or warn drivers not to swerve into their blind spots.

Toyota is pitching it as a social-networking link "to connect with friends who are driving nearby."

"We thought it would be fun to put a smartphone on four wheels," said Toyota president Akio Toyoda, as quoted in TheRegister.

Many of the functions of the car – presumably those that don't involve steering or acceleration – are designed to be controlled remotely from a smartphone, in fact.

One more reason never to put your hands on the wheel.

All the technology is cool, of course. Much of it shows how much more effective our existing technologies could be when used carefully and sparingly to assist drivers rather than distract them – as Toyota is trying to do with the pedestrian-avoidance system it announced this past summer.

Heads-up displays in some high-end luxury cars, for example, show speed and direction on the windshield so the driver doesn't have to look at gauges.

Ultrasound or radar-warning systems also find and display objects ahead that could cause accidents, especially at night, in fog or other low-visibility conditions.

Fun-Vii looks as if it was designed to create conditions in which visibility is fine but the driver is too distracted to look.

The augmented reality interface as displayed in the concept illustrations, for example, make it harder to look at the road outside than the digital images of it.

The floor in the illustrations lights up in a flashing geometric Tron-ish pattern that would play hell with night vision as well as adding a sense of movement inside the cabin as yet another distraction.

Speaking of distractions… Toyota describes the navigation concierge as being a simple voice interface, no worse than the one you ignore in your own car already. But theimages it distributed with the Fun-Vii announcement show CGI images of the concierge as a 3-D hologram that looks like a cross between the 1960s-era attendants on "Pan Am" Princess Leia in Star Wars.

Just for the record, a human-looking hologram that tries to make eye contact with the driver while discussing directions is not a good idea in a moving car.

Gadgets that distract drivers are the cause of 25 percent of all traffic accidents, according to a July study from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), a quarter of all traffic accidents are caused by gadgets and the distraction they cause. That would be all the GPSs, MP3s, cell phones, laptops – all the things that will interface with the Fun-Vii, painting their interfaces across the inside of the car so drivers and passengers hardly have time to look outside at all.

As part of its report, the GHSA recommends traffic-safety administrations in every state enact bans on texting while driving, enforce laws against talking on cell phones while driving and launch communication programs to teach people the dangers of driving while distracted.

Toyota, meanwhile, pitched its concept car as an "information hub" for the connected 21st century driver.

Toyota isn't the first to go buzzword-happy.

This summer Ford introduced a concept car called the Evos that is designed to connect to traffic data stored in the cloud and connections to social networks that supply information like what routes are the favorite of a driver's Facebook friends for a particular trip, or hunt up an open parking space nearby.

Saying the Ford Evos is "cloud connected" rather than linked to a back-end data service in the same way OnStar has been for more than a decade is buzzword-hypey.

At least the Evos isn't designed as a social-networking-based rolling distraction and deathtrap.

Automotive concept: the network-connected death trap

Granted both the Fun-Vii and the Ford Evos are concept cars designed to get attention from the press and draw crowds at auto shows. Neither will hit production in their current form, and even the technologies they showcase will only become standard as they pass real-world tests for distractability and usability.

And Google or DARPA might come up with self-piloting vehicles for humans who aren't up to the responsibility of steering.

Still, isn't it a little ridiculous to design a car as a cell phone and then find a way to keep it from immediately killing everyone who tries to drive it without turning off all the cool networky features?

Isn't it ridiculous to design a car's connectability in the same way you design that of a cell phone, which doesn't actually require that its owner be piloting two tons of metal while trying to figure out where the Send button is?

Yes. (just in case you were wondering).

Toyota quotes the motto of the Tokyo Motor Show as "Mobility can change the world," which would be a great slogan for an IT conference focused on making mobile computing safe as well as mobile. Until recently computers weren't famous for being mobile, so making a big deal about it would be appropriate.

The whole justification for the existence of a car – not to put too fine a point on it – is to be mobile. Toyota already has mobility. It doesn't need to build it into a car.

It needs to keep the mobility and add a little connectivity – in the corners, with off switches, in ways that are unobtrusive to the driver when not actually being helpful.

Making "mobile technology" the focus of the design of a concept car gets the whole concept backward.

Cars are not designed like smartphones because smartphones are not designed to carry four passengers at 70 MPH through an elbowing horde of Boston drivers daring one another to trade paint as they compete for the narrowing lanes on the way in to a toll booth or the fastest lanes back out the other side.

It's a bonus if the car has enough muscle to help power out of a risky situation, enough maneuverability to help dodge unexpected things in the road (like other cars) and enough 'net connectivity through handheld devices to help you get where you're going even if you don't know the way.

Chasing "mobility" by designing a whole car to emulate the smartphone/social-networking experience at 70 MPH on the highway rather than at 0 MPH while seated at your desk is so backward that if I were buying a Fun-Vii, I'd have to worry whether Toyota had included an engine and transmission as well as all the networking gear.

Shut up and drive

Again, I realize this is just a concept car, designed to showcase a few cool technologies that may or not make it into other vehicles at some time in the future.

But it gets the whole thing backward, designing a car around the information technology rather than the IT around the car. The IT is supposed to be there to assist the driver, not raise such a social cacophony even the most earnestly safe and attentive driver couldn't pay attention to the road.

If the Fun-Vii shipped in its current form, the only way to use all the networked functions of the Fun-Vii or any other car that's too smart for your own good would be to park it in the driveway and try to get productive while sitting in it – with the transmission in Park and the engine turned off.

Toyota had better hope the information-hub idea works better than the way Toyota built it into a vehicle.

The better the Fun-Vii works as a digital connection to the 'net, social networks and other services to which Toyota owners would otherwise have to drive, the less likely it is that a Fun-Vii owner will live through more than a couple of weeks of ownership.

If they leave it in the driveway and get to work on the bus, they might miss out on the thrill of making your way through traffic without being able to pay attention to it. They might not really appreciate whatever drive train and engine Toyota puts in the car (Toyota didn't mention any of the automotive-type features of the car, only the digital ones).

But at least when the whole system crashes they'd be dealing with network reconfigurations and system reboots, not sudden deceleration, property damage and death.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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