Toyota's working on a new feature called "Toyota Friend," part of a private social network that connects you—with Microsoft's help—to your car. It'll be similar to Twitter, and will work remotely—or so it seems.
It's all about interacting with your car to learn more about its needs—and though that sounds odd, just think about how much smarter our cars are today than even five years ago. Microsoft is a development partner in the new endeavor, but it's expected to build on the kind of advanced navigation and entertainment systems that are increasingly built into cars—particularly smart cars that have SIM slots in their dash, and, most importantly electric vehicles. Toyota is said to be injecting $5.5 million, Microsoft is joining with $4.1 million and Salesforce is pushing $2.8 million into the project (because it's expected to use the same kind of open-source cloud systems that Salesforce already exploits), and the tech will appear in cars in 2012, starting in Japan.
But why the heck would you want to chatter with your car—have they reached such a sci-fi level of intelligence that you'd want to be friends with your vehicle? Perhaps this speaks to the desire for a deeper kind of communication with your car systems, such as a new plug-in Prius tweeting at you to remind you its charge is low and you need to plug it in later. The car's system, under Toyota's plan, would be polite and smart enough to make comments about when it's next charge is likely to be complete using standard charging gear. There may even be a social angle, with the ability to share some of the car's data with your friends—though the motivations as to why are obscure, apart from perhaps crowing over your efficient driving.
But we're also imagining that an interface like this could connect with more mechanical aspects of the car, including its sensor suite, to warn you that its annual service is due, that the water level is low in its windshield washer and so on. And when you get to that kind of deep interaction, it's easy to imagine Toyota Friend detecting that it's winter now, and maybe you should be kind to your Prius and add some anti-freeze.
This last suggestion is speculative, but it certainly chimes in tune with words from Toyota's president Akio Toyoda, who often "talks" to his race cars and hopes "cars can become friends with their users." It's also about brand value, as Toyoda suggests buyers could also "see Toyota as a friend." Let's face it—many of us name our cars, and if you've owned a number then you'll probably agree that each has its own distinct character. Having some kind of digital interaction with the car is just the 21st century evolution of this idea. And if such advances make it easier for folks to remember to plug in their car and thus embrace the EV revolution, then all the better. Let's just hope Toyota imbues its cars with a personality that's way less acidic than Michael Knight had to cope with.
[Image: Flickr user Pelipe]