Driverless cars are already being developed by nearly every automaker. And despite the recent Tesla Model S crash in which a driver was killed while using the car's semi-autonomous Autopilot feature, they're typically much safer than human drivers, and they're getting better all of the time.
That's because the core of most driverless car technology is artificial intelligence software, which is learning how to respond to new scenarios by building on previous knowledge through deep learning technology and artificial neural networks. The car is learning how to do the driving.
But Japanese tech company SoftBank (NASDAQOTH:SFTBF) and Honda Motors (NYSE:HMC) want to use artificial intelligence in vehicles in a different way. The two companies recently partnered to develop a network of sensors, cameras, and AI software that will be able to have conversations with drivers.
Their goal is to create a kind of friendship between a driver and his or her vehicle. The companies will collaborate on AI software that analyzes a driver's speech and, through cameras and sensors, interpret a driver's emotions.
The idea is that a car will become a supercomputer that can talk you through a bad day after work or engage you in conversation on a long ride.
Honda said in a press release that the AI will use conversations with the driver and other data it gathers "both to perceive the emotions of the driver and to engage in dialogue with the driver based on the vehicle's own emotions." The just-announced partnership works toward application of the "emotion engine," which is "a set of AI technologies developed by cocoro SB Corp., which enable machines to artificially generate their own emotions."
The automaker says that allowing the vehicle to converse with the driver about shared experiences (perhaps sitting in traffic for hours together?) will eventually help drivers form an emotional attachment with the vehicle.
Creating emotionally intelligent cars isn't too far out of Honda's and SoftBank's wheelhouses. Honda has long pursued robotics and AI with the Asimo robot project and SoftBank has its own Pepper robot, which was designed for human companionship. The robot's AI can already recognize mood swings in humans.
And both of the companies have made recent investments in artificial intelligence that will assist their partnership: Honda just built a new AI lab and SoftBank is researching cloud-based AI technology.
All of this sounds a lot like science fiction, but Honda and SoftBank aren't the only companies thinking cars should be more personable. Toyota created the FV2 concept vehicle a few years ago (it never made it into production) that could read a person's emotions and attempt to establish a bond with them.
"Toyota envisions an ever-developing driver-vehicle relationship similar to the relationship of trust and understanding that a rider might have with his or her horse," the company said in a press release at the time.
Similarly, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, began working on facial recognition software two years ago that could detect road rage in a driver, and then play soothing music to defuse the situation. The emotions are detected through heart-rate sensors, pressure sensors on the steering wheel, and image processing technology from in-car cameras. Volvo says it's researched ways for its vehicles to know when drivers are angry as well.
This isn't as crazy as it sounds
This might sound a little far-fetched at first, but remember that Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft are all pursuing AI systems that will eventually be our personal assistants. Cortana, Alexa, and Siri may all seem clunky now, but Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has said that mobile apps are already getting out of hand, and that voice assistants are what we need to really get things done.
The Honda partnership is part of a larger focus by SoftBank on the Internet of Things (IoT). The company just announced it's acquiring chip designer ARM Holdings for $32 billion, which it believes will help create the processors needed to power the billions of IoT devices that are poised to hit the market in coming years. By teaming up with Honda, SoftBank can now focus on the software side of connected cars (which is part of the IoT), while also betting on IoT hardware through the ARM acquisition.
As cars get smarter and their driverless systems become more complex, we may need to look to artificial intelligence software to interact with them. Many smart-home devices, tablets, computers, and smartphones have voice-assisted systems, and they're all using some form of AI to better interact with us and understand what we're saying. All Honda and SoftBank are doing is taking that same idea and applying it to our cars.