The Intersection of Technology and Design Isn’t Boring

Toyota's FCV Plus concept

Toyota’s FCV Plus concept

On May 26, the New England Motor Press Association, of which some of us here at CarGurus are members, will host a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the theme Technology Intersecting Design. It may sound like a boring topic, but as you’ll see, it’s a compelling one.

The NEMPA conference will include prominent industry figures like Timothy Anness, head of advance design, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles – North America; Mary Gustanski, vice president of engineering, Delphi; Michelle Tolini Finamore, curator of fashion arts at the (Boston) Museum of Fine Arts; Dr. Gill Pratt – CEO, Toyota Research Institute; and John J. Leonard, professor of mechanical and ocean engineering at MIT.

On the surface (or maybe I should say under the surface), it might seem odd to have a professor of Mechanical and Ocean Engineering at a conference on automotive technology and design, but Dr. Leonard is a member of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which has a website worth checking out.

His research addresses the problems of navigation and mapping for autonomous mobile robots. In other words, his research under water and above ground will significantly influence the autonomous vehicles we will be driving.

He’s also heavily involved in the use of artificial intelligence, which will be prominent in autonomous driving, but not in the way you might think. It could be the bedrock for allowing driving to continue to be fun.

As John Hanson, Toyota’s national manager, advanced technology & business communications, told me in an interview, the car, at some point, will be a highly sophisticated transportation device capable of knowing your habits, your strengths, your weaknesses, your driving ability, your schedule, the environment around you, and even some of your immediate vital signs.

It all sounds pretty routine, Hanson might agree, until you think about how much robots and AI might keep the zest for driving alive in those who want it.

That seems contradictory to current perceptions of autonomous driving. Or does it?

Hanson, who works closely with Pratt at Toyota’s Research Institute, said, “As we move towards autonomous, the car will learn your limitations, as well as its own ability to process outside factors like the slippery surfaces of the road. Rather than simply driving, the driver will be able to drive at a more spirited rate, knowing the car is ready to assist as needed.”

It’s an element of autonomous driving not being heralded at this point. Manufacturers are selling the self-driving car for safety reasons. Imagine, though, if they sold it as technology that’s going to make you a better driver who can push a vehicle to its limits, knowing the technology will give you a boost. Your autonomous vehicle could be equal parts electronic nanny and Mario Andretti.

Now thoughts of autonomous vehicles aren’t dampening my enthusiasm for driving.

How close are we to these kinds of robotics and artificial intelligence? Would it surprise you to know we’re already there in some respects?

As Hanson said, “The process requires that the car sense its environment (having a situational awareness), process what the best reaction/response should be, and then react. A good example is automatic emergency braking, currently available on [shameless plug alert] many Toyota and Lexus vehicles and offered in nearly every model and trim level by the end of 2017 as standard equipment.”

It’s good to know the intersection of technology and design won’t lead to a dystopian future in which cars are boring tubes shuttling us from place to place. It sounds like automobiles in the future (say by 2025) are still going to be able to inspire our passion to drive. Maybe we can get more Millennials interested in driving if they know what’s coming.

-Keith Griffin

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