CES 2017: Toyota Concept-i in depth

06 January 2017 | by Chris Maillard

“We don't make bullshit concept cars,” insists Toyota's Ian Cartabiano. “This is the real thing.”

Though outwardly sweet-looking, even cute, the Concept-i certainly has a deeper purpose to it. Its innocent white surface hides some very hard thinking about autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, the nature of our relationship with technology, and a touch of omotenashi.

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It features highly sophisticated interior and exterior graphics, lighting that glows from beneath the outer skin and a host of interesting and clever details. This isn't just a pretty but irrelevant vanity project, it seems, but quite possibly a pointer to Toyota's future direction.

Ian, chief designer at the firm's California-based CALTY studio, and his colleague William Chergosky, product design manager and responsible for much of the UX and interior, explained the Concept-i a day after its unveiling in a rather hectic interview behind the scenes at the company's CES stand. They were very keen to explain their thinking – particularly as it had been going on for quite a while.


William and Ian (L-R) pose in semi-darkness

“We started this project on February 1st, 2015,” explained Ian, “and we spent a good four or five months brainstorming ideas before we started even sketching anything. The basic question was ‘what will Toyota driving look like in 2030?’ and we ended up taking a different tack to pretty much everybody else.

“We decided that driving will still matter. Yes, it'll be autonomous, but there'll still be a manual mode. It's got a steering wheel, because it turns out that even a retractable wheel would be far too slow to react in a real-life situation. And the driver will still be in control. So there's a practical reason for having it and also a philosophical one. You should still enjoy driving when you do it, even if there are times when you just want the car to take over.

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“We had one key phrase during its design development: ‘Kinetic Warmth’. And that in turn led to the words ‘engaging, intriguing, passionate’. That influenced everything on the car. There's a school of design at the moment which makes a car feel just like a laptop on wheels – an impersonal transport unit. We wanted to do something more soulful – intriguing, lively and human. Somebody came up to us when we first showed it and said ‘it looks like a human made it’. That's exactly what we were trying to achieve.

“Unusually, the Concept-i was designed from the inside out. Normally the interior, UX and graphics are done last but we took the opposite approach. The UI (an interface for the vehicle's artificial intelligence, named ‘Yui’) was absolutely central. We tried all sorts of things – robot heads, a glowing sphere, 3D animations – but ended up with a very simple idea, an animated 2D graphic that followed the basic rules of animation which have been used by Walt Disney and so on since the 1930s to give drawings movement and life. It's just an outer ring and a central core. That's it, but it moves in a way that looks lifelike and appealing.

“We built in another important element too; vulnerability. Rather than a powerful but impersonal computer, we gave it a little touch of humility. That builds empathy, and you eventually learn to trust it and feel attached to it much more.”

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“We are inundated with information these days,” adds William. “But our UI gets out of the way. I call it ‘removing the tyranny of the tablet’. It's only there when you need it, and seamlessly anticipates your needs. There's a Japanese concept called ‘omotenashi’ which stems from the tea ceremony and is all about service that is so perfect that it is almost invisible.”

There are other touches which give the Concept-i a distinct personality; it winks at you when you walk up to it, for instance, and instead of opening with a physical object such as a key it recognises your biometric signs. It has a touch-to-start graphic which is intended to have, as William puts it, “the same sense of recognition as seeing a friend.”

The interior itself – which Ian proudly proclaims seats four in perfect comfort – is pristinely white, with some smart touches such as the laser-etched seat fabric which apparently evokes a favourite photograph of a Kyoto mountainside forest. It is designed to feel serene and relaxing, though the glass-panelled lower doors, through which the moving road can be seen, add a touch of excitement.

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The interior architecture makes its way to the outside too, sweeping round and through the doors to join the pearl-white exterior. “The white has a touch of pearly blue,” explains Ian, “which was chosen to evoke handmade ceramics. And all the lights and graphics are under the skin, which was incredibly difficult to do. That took months.”

As you walk around the car, more graphic touches become apparent; though the stars of the show are visual cues such as the manual/autonomous signal on the front, there are plenty of other points of interest, such as the gold rear light trim which flashes red when illuminated, to the ‘comet trail’ effect of the decorative graphic overlays which give it a strong feeling of forward movement. It even has the distinctive trapezoidal Toyota family face, albeit ultra-subtly incorporated.

Everywhere you look on this car there are distinctive and thoughtful elements. As an antidote to the dull ‘transportation appliance’ style of so many autonomous concepts, it's a breath of fresh air. And while it's highly unlikely to make it to production as is, it contains plenty of clues to a very innovative and refreshing future direction.