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Intelligent Electric Cars at Tokyo Motor Show

Honda Sports EV Concept (More photos below)

SNA (Tokyo) — Japanese automakers are trying to put damaging corporate scandals behind them and get people to focus on designs for vehicles that are not only environmentally friendly, but packed with artificial intelligence (AI) features. At the 45th Tokyo Motor Show, carmakers are doing their best to wow attendees with slick concept cars that can provide clues about future industry directions.

Automotive AI features such as driver assist and speech recognition have been increasing in recent years and are expected to be standard in all new vehicles by 2025, according to a 2016 study by IHS Markit. It predicted that the main categories will be infotainment human-machine interfaces such as driver monitoring, advanced driver assistance, and autonomous driving systems. The Tokyo Motor Show is one place to see how such functions might be implemented.

Automatic Stress Monitoring

One of the stars of the exhibition, which runs from October 27 to November 5 at the Tokyo Big Sight convention center, was Honda Motor’s Sports EV Concept, a muscular electric vehicle with minimalist styling straight out of an Apple design lab. The Sports EV, as well as Honda’s Urban EV Concept, a curvy compact that recalls the manufacturer’s Civic models of the 1980s, and the NeuV, a mini-vehicle concept introduced in Las Vegas earlier this year, have a feature called the Honda Automated Network Assistant, or HANA. The AI agent can monitor the driver’s stress levels by monitoring his or her voice and facial expressions, and then make appropriate music suggestions, for instance.

“NeuV will learn the lifestyle and preferences of the driver and suggest different options for making driving more fun for the particular driver,” Honda CEO Takahiro Hachigo said at a press conference. “This model will demonstrate how mobility products can serve people as an even closer partner than they already are.”

Honda was one of many manufacturers in Japan affected by news that Kobe Steel admitted falsifying data about its aluminum products, though the carmaker said it has not found any safety issues.

Hydrogen-Powered Smart Vans

Toyota Motor has racked up significant experience and sales with electric and hybrid vehicles, having introduced the Prius twenty years ago at the Tokyo Motor Show, but its brand has been hit by a recall of millions of vehicles amid revelations about faulty airbags made by supplier Takata.

The carmaker was keen to shine a spotlight on its Fine-Comfort Ride, a hydrogen-powered, six-seater minivan that is a successor to the Mirai FCV. With a cruising range of about 1,000 kilometers under Japan’s JC08 test cycle standard, the Fine-Comfort Ride requires only three minutes to refuel and has an adjustable seat layout and touch-panel driver displays.

The world’s No. 3 carmaker also exhibited the i-Ride and Concept-i vehicles, both of which are a play on the Japanese character for “love.” The latter, introduced at the CES tech show in Las Vegas this year, features a dramatic cutaway design and deep learning that allow it to track in-cabin conversation, Global Positioning System (GPS) locations, and social media activity.

“Concept-i is not just a design exercise, nor is it just a car. It’s a beautiful object that becomes your partner thanks to AI and connected technologies,” Toyota Executive Vice-President Didier Leroy told journalists at a press event. “It can capture your state of mind and keep you engaged to reduce the risk factors of accidents. It understands what you like, what you want to do, and establishes a new relationship with you.”

Sit Back, Relax, and Fall Asleep at the Wheel

Nissan Motor, reeling from a scandal sparked by revelations that unauthorized workers had carried out final inspections on vehicles, showed off its wares under its Nissan Intelligent Mobility theme.

In addition to the latest Leaf, which debuted in September and is billed as having a range of 400 kilometers under Japan’s JC08 testing standard, Nissan unveiled the IMx, an all-electric crossover with a driving range of 600 kilometers and fully autonomous operation. Sporting a chiseled body and styling inspired by traditional Japanese aesthetics, the car has two electric motors, located in the front and rear, that generate 320 kW of power and rear allow for all-wheel drive. The IMx also has a next-generation version of Nissan’s ProPILOT assistive technologies, which have been used in other models for functions such as parking.

“When the customer chooses ProPILOT Drive Mode, the interior transforms,” Daniele Schillaci, head of global sales and marketing at Nissan, said at a press event. “The steering wheel retracts and the seats recline, creating a new environment focused more on relaxation. It reflects the Japanese tradition of harmony – or wa – and provides a sense of peace and simplicity, which you can see through the beautiful wood grain.”

Apart from Japan’s Big Three carmakers, manufacturers such as Mitsubishi Motors also showed algorithm-crunching, zero-emission vehicles. They provided more than enough excitement among journalists and other visitors to make the industry’s integrity problems seem like ancient history.


The Honda Urban EV Concept…

The Toyota Fine-Comfort Ride…

The Toyota Concept i-Ride…

The Toyota Concept-i…

The Nissan Leaf…

The Nissan IMx…

Tim Hornyak is a freelance science and technology journalist based in Tokyo. He is also the author of “Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots.” Hornyak has worked as Tokyo correspondent for IDG News and has contributed to media such as Scientific American, National Geographic News, and the MIT Technology Review.