The Toyota Concept-i: Driving 2030

Not all people think that the future of automobiles consists of undifferentiated pod-like structures that will contain people like just so much cargo. Ian Cartabiano and his colleagues at Calty are among them, so they’ve created Concept-i.

Ian Cartabiano received a degree in transportation design from Art Center in 1997, then moved south from Pasadena to Newport Beach, where he took a position at Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, Toyota’s U.S. design studio. And while he continues to keep his hand in at Art Center, as an instructor, he’s been nothing if not busy.

That is, among the design projects Cartabiano has headed up are several concept vehicles—the 2005 FT-SX, 2006 F3R, 2008 A-BAT, 2012 Lexus LF-LC—as well as his share of production vehicles—2009 Venza, 2011 Sienna, 2013 Avalon, 2018 C-HR, 2018 Camry. Which is a panoply that encompasses things from sports cars to people movers, from a funky compact pickup to a stylish executive sedan.

Presently, Cartabiano is studio chief designer at Calty. Ordinarily, Calty Design Research is simply referred to as “Calty.”

Back in 2015 Toyota established, with a $1-billion investment, something that is more “research” oriented in a more traditional sense, The Toyota Research Institute (TRI). That is, Dr. Gill Pratt, who, prior to joining Toyota, was a program manager in the Defense Sciences Office at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), says: “TRI’s mission is focused on Artificial Intelligence and includes four goals: First, to greatly enhance vehicle safety and someday create a car incapable of causing a crash. Second, to greatly increase mobility access for those who cannot drive. Third, to heavily invest in robotics to move people not just across town, but in their home, from room to room. And finally, to accelerate discovery in materials science by applying techniques from artificial intelligence and machine learning.”

Pratt and his team—located in facilities in Palo Alto (think: Stanford), Ann Arbor (think: University of Michigan) and Cambridge (think: MIT)—are, essentially, working toward advancing autonomous vehicle technology. These are TRI employees, leveraging their resources and know-how with the universities that they are not-so-coincidentally located near.

So when you think of “research,” you probably think more along the lines of what is going on at TRI.
But designers need to research their concepts. And sometimes they get to work with people who 
are developing artificial intelligence agents.

A few years ago, prior to the existence of TRI, Cartabiano and his colleagues at Calty started talking about creating a concept vehicle that would be unlike any that they’d done before.

“We spent months and months and months discussing philosophy about artificial intelligence and autonomous driving before we started sketching,” he recalls, adding that those two topics are “changing the way we design and look at cars and the driving environment.”

So, they decided that they would create a concept that would be “our vision for future Toyota driving in 2030.”

They began working on the Concept-i.

There is a key word in that line about vision. Driving.

This is a 2030 vehicle that is meant to be driven. This is not to say that Concept-i doesn’t have autonomous capability. The designers and the researchers worked very closely on the development of the capabilities of the vehicle and there the ability to tradeoff between the driver driving and the automated system taking control (even to the extent that there is a biometric system that keeps abreast of the driver’s attention and capability, so that should the on-board autonomous AI-based agent—named “Yui”—calculate that the driver needs assistance, that will be supplied post-haste.

“A lot of autonomous cars shown over the last two years have a steering wheel that retracts. My personal opinion,” Cartabiano says, “is that that’s just a gimmick to show that the AI is driving the car.”

The steering wheel in Concept-i doesn’t retract.

Which is based on research that they did on retractable steering wheels. They determined that the fastest steering wheel could get back into position for a driver from being fully retracted is 20 seconds. “You can travel quite a distance on the 405 in 20 seconds,” he notes.
There are also four wheels (“We developed a new wheel-tire package and tire size”). And pedals.

This is the important bit about the Concept-i as an automobile:

“As advanced as the car is and the statement we’re making in some areas, ‘fun-to-drive’ is still key, and the driver is still in control in our car.

“And we’re trying to say that there is still a spot in the future where driving is fun and an enjoyable experience that can make your day better—we hope.”

But as Cartabiano (1) works for a living and (2) lives in SoCal, he knows that some days one might be a little frustrated at the end of the day and that on many days you’re not traveling very far on the 405 in 20 seconds.

Which is where Yui comes into play.

“When we thought about the concept for the AI agent in the vehicle,” Cartabiano says, “we studied a lot of iterations. We thought about holograms and a 3D sphere and a literal robot.

“But because this had to speak to a global audience we wanted to create a design for Yui that is universal, simple and approachable. We ended up going back to a 2D graphic. I know that in the age of holograms it is not that exotic, but if you want to speak to a wide global audience and move past language, it is really key.”

There is a “home” for Yui on the center of the instrument panel, a circular area. Yui appears as a solid circle within a ring, yet its shape can morph.

That is, Cartabiano says, that in order to make the shape come to life, the Calty designers went back to the 12 rules of animation that came out of the Walt Disney Studios in the 1930s (e.g., squash and stretch, anticipation, exaggeration . . . ). In action, the image is cartoon-like, but not like a cheesy gimmick.

And while they worked to create something that could communicate without language, audible and visible language is important to Concept-i’s execution.

For example, there is a voice. “We tried to choose a natural voice, like a friend.” And there is a display—inside the car and out—of words, like “Hello.”

“The movement plus the voice plus the visual words creates an object that feels lively but doesn’t pass the point of being creepy.”

Because Yui is going to be communicating with the driver, there has to be a sense of trust created with the AI.

So back to the frustrating day at work and the need to drive home in what is likely to be exceedingly slow-moving freeway traffic.

As previously mentioned, there are biometric sensors built into the vehicle. That could sense the driver’s level of agitation after getting into the car (heart rate, breathing, etc.). Because this vehicle has autonomous capabilities, it is connected to the outside world, so it would “know” the traffic conditions on the local roads. “It could suggest that instead of the 405 I could take PCH home—even though it might be longer, it is a beautiful drive . . .”

“Kinetic warmth.”
That was the key word that they used for the design of the Concept-i. “That informed every aspect of the design from the UX/AI to the interior design to the exterior to the color and trim to the graphics and lighting to the messaging—everything.”

Cartabiano notes that a lot of the autonomous driving concept vehicles that have been developed of late are “very cold, sterile—basically a laptop on wheels to shuttle you from point A to B. We don’t want that to be the future of driving.”

Cartabiano says that unlike traditional Calty design programs, with this vehicle they started the design from the inside, then designed around it, rather than sketching the exterior and then filling it.

The interior design is rather simple, with an emphasis more on sculptural forms than on gadgetry. He says that they are working on a 600-mm wide 3D heads-up display to accommodate much of the information that would otherwise be contained in gauges. One consequence of that display is that they were able, as Cartabiano puts it, to avoid “the tyranny of the tablet,” explaining, “We don’t have an interior crowded by black, shiny screens. The interior is a beautiful, white sculpture. There’s still information shared, but it seems to come out of nowhere. When you’re done with the information, it will disappear.”

Starting the vehicle design from within has major implications on the exterior. “The interior, moving from inside to outside, creates a really unique DLO, or window graphic, that seems to surround the white door panel; the window graphic loops around the door, shoots to the back of the car, then the glass dissolves into a fractal mosaic like a comet trails, then picks up again in the tail lamp.”

While the cabin is essentially surrounded by a polycarbonate-like material (“The amount of the outside world you can see is refreshing”), there is a solid white door beam that goes from the back half of the car forward. Cartabiano describes it as being a “beautiful, solid, ceramic-like image.”
But the surface door panel surface does more than simply act as a design element for the overall vehicle.

While there is that central “home” for Yui, the agent actually moves not only within the car, but outside, as well. That door beam is one of the places where there is external communication. As in a place where you see the word “Hello” when approaching the car.

Cartabiano says that for the messaging on the door panel and the rear panel of the car, as well as for the headlights, they’re using ultrathin LED panels and a new paint technology. Unless the LEDs are illuminated, there is just a solid surface. Like the information displayed on (or above) the instrument panel, when they’re not needed, they disappear.

The word from many people is that as vehicles become autonomous, car ownership will decrease. As they become autonomous, driving will give way to the occupants being transported.

“I truly don’t believe that,” Cartabiano insists. He believes that people will want to drive. He believes that driving will be enhanced with, not eliminated by, AI.

And he believes that if cars are beautifully designed, people will want to have them.