Take the latest in robotics and communications technology, combine it with the personality of the family pet and add a smiling visage that's reminiscent of the VW Beetle and you end up with the 'Pod'. Unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show late last year, the Pod concept vehicle is collaboration between Toyota and Sony that takes the relationship between car and driver to a new level. Developed with entertainment, emotion and enhancement of the driving experience in mind, the Pod will play your favourite music, reflect your mood (and its own) through a display of different coloured lights on the front, say goodbye when you get out, thank other drivers when they let you merge and even wag its antenna 'tail' when its really chuffed.
The Pod is able to provide this feedback through a series of sensors that detect and store data on the driver's preferences. This extends well beyond musical taste, with sensors detecting variations in driving conditions, appropriate use of steering wheel, accelerator and brakes, the pulse and the perspiration level of the driver - the Pod even employs a face recognition sensor to detect if the driver is falling asleep.
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A portable unit called the 'mini pod' allows this 'learning' process to continue while the driver is away from the car - the terminal collects information such as music and television preferences inside the home and transfers this data back to the car which can act accordingly when next in use. For example the mini pod picked up on a the name of a band whilst you were at home and this name is subsequently mentioned during conversation in the car, the Pod will immediately begin surfing the Internet to download and play their songs.
The 'smart' capabilities of the Pod also extend beyond the realm of entertainment - the driving data collected by the car can be compared with pre-recorded 'expert' data and the driver given warnings or encouragement through text on the Pod's monitor. The car also features a hands only 'drive-by-wire' control system enabling steering, braking and acceleration to be operated through a single controller.
The unusual symmetrical design -which means that when viewed from the side you can't tell which way its facing - puts the emphasis firmly on cute, and the innovative interior features four single swivel chairs to utilise all available space and give the Pod the ambience of a mobile tea-room and remove it further from the notion of being 'just a car'.
The colour changing LED panels on the front that make up the Pod's smiling face turn yellow with happiness as the driver approaches - we're not sure exactly what you have to do to make it wag its tail - and orange during normal operation when all systems are running smoothly.
Two more colours also appear - blue for sadness when the fuel runs out or the Pod is 'neglected' by a long period of misuse, and red for anger when braking heavily or driving aggressively. And if the Pod is happy and it senses that its occupants are happy it will capture the moment by taking your photograph.
Although still at concept stage, the prototype of the Pod can be driven and is technically ready for practical use - the drawback is that its operation is dependent on communications infrastructure such as the radio DSRC (dedicated short range communication) system, so your chances of replacing Rover with a four-wheeled pet in the not too distant future will come down to where you live.