Concept cars always bring out the best and the worst in automotive journalists. We tend to either heap praise or bile on them, rarely freezing our shoot-from-the-hip judgements in midair to ask, "Why did Carmaker X need to do this?" Not a bad question considering the boatloads of cost and cubic man hours required to bring a concept to a show.

Your car knows you, but does it really love you?

With the Concept-i, Toyota is playing a little trick with the idea of autonomous driving, with the help of the company's CALTY design studio in Southern California. It has introduced a show car based on the philosophy of "Kinetic Warmth," and insisting that the car will understand us, be our friend, and engender "mutual affection" (if that last one sounds absurd to you, you've never owned an iPhone).

Related: Autonomous Cars

"You hate design BS? I hate design BS too," Ian Cartabiano, CALTY’s chief designer assures us. "Have you seen the autonomous cars that everybody else is doing? We needed something more human, more soulful, more passionate. We needed a touchstone for the car's design. That's what this is. We sculpted it from the inside out -- something you never do when you're designing a car."

That inside-out styling comes courtesy of "Yui", the center-dash-mounted user software interface that uses machine learning to figure out the driver's route/food/pastime/etc. preferences over time as well as his/her biometric status (using blood-pressure monitors in the driver's seat). Yui also wants to learn where and when the driver wants the Concept-i to drive autonomously, or if he/she might prefer a more hands-on approach in certain situations. Yui also changes the car's interior lighting from green to purple when self-driving in "Automatic" mode, announces the car's braking and turning intentions to the outside world, and even greets the driver with a chipper "HELLO!" sign in the scissor doors.

Why did Toyota need to do this?                                                           

With all due respect to those doors, the memorable edginess of the Concept-i lines, and the Yui user interface applications, the car is not the story, not the big picture. The Concept-i's shape looks way double-cool, but it doesn't even hint at a producible reality. The big picture is the mystery of what will cars mean to us in the future -- the one every carmaker is wrestling with. Toyota is looking for answers, using resources like CALTY's Concept-i and the future-tech visionaries in places like the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) across the street from Stanford in Palo Alto, California. Trust us: Keep an eye on TRI -- to figure out what's next, and what's next after what's next.


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