How About a Robot as a Driving Companion

Nancy Anderson
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Google began testing self-driving car prototypes in California and Michigan in the spring of 2015. By 2021, when Americans get behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle, they'll be able to keep a small robot companion in the cup holder for long journeys.

Toyota plans to roll out the 4-inch-tall Kirobo Mini robot companion that travels along with motorists in a vehicle. The mechanical device detects human emotions based on facial expressions, speech patterns and gestures. The robot may keep humans alert and calm by talking to drivers. Kirobo Minis should start as a feature available only in Toyota vehicles.

However, these tiny electronic wonders have a dual purpose. Kirobo Mini models also study human driving habits so scientists and engineers better understand how human respond to things on the road and in the vehicle. The information gathered by the robot companion may help designers create better cars with newer and better features. Toyota noticed that Americans spend an average of 4.3 years in a car per lifetime, and the Kirobo Mini could suggest places to visit and musical selections as someone drives for long distances without any other humans in the car.

The Kirobo Mini has origins dating back to the Space Age. The original Kirobo accompanied Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata to the International Space Station in 2013. That robot companion was 13.4 inches tall, and designers wanted to see how Kirobo interacted and conversed with its human partner. Thanks to its conversational programming, researchers wanted to know if Kirobo could serve as a viable, working companion.

The experiment in Earth orbit also jump-started Toyota's quest to create a smaller-sized robot that could fit into a person's pocket. The 4-inch Kirobo Mini represents a leap in that direction. The newer robot companion also signifies a step forward for robots that help humans in other mundane aspects of life. In June 2015, Japan-based SoftBank Robotics sold 1,000 of its personal robots for $1,600 each. The robots interact with humans emotionally and respond to a person's mood.

Humanoid robots along for the ride symbolize a different tactic than Google's self-driving car. Instead of an entire vehicle that acts as a robot to sense driving conditions, other cars and road signs, Kirobo Mini eases the emotional stress of drivers. Whereas an autonomous vehicle takes over driving duties completely, humanoid robots interact with human drivers to provide comfort and support.

The ultimate goal of humanoid robot designers is to create machines that help humans while alleviating fears of robot interaction. A hotel chain in California uses robots as butlers in the lobby and as room service attendants. The device, called Butlr, helps visitors find their rooms, calls for an elevator and delivers snacks to guests.

A robot companion may serve as a step forward for road trips in some respects. Robots do not need to eat, go to the bathroom or sleep during long drives. All a driver has to do is keep the device powered up for the robot to provide hours of non-distracting companionship and engagement on the road.

Photo courtesy of digitalart at



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