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Patent No. 6,757,593

If 'anger' is showing, the display shows an 'angry' expression and the speaker outputs an audio message: 'I am angry now'

By Novella Carpenter

My favorite bathroom book, 101 Un-useful Japanese Inventions by Kenji Kawakami, has informed my daydreaming brain for a number of years. During boring conversations or church services, I could tune out and think about the genius of having a pair of earrings with built-in earplugs (for those loud nights at the disco), for example. Or dust slippers for household pets (why should humans do all the housework?).

Because of my love of such silly inventions, my ears perked up when I heard about patent No. 6,757,593. Two months ago, four Japanese inventors working for Toyota were awarded the patent for "Vehicle expression operation control system, vehicle communication system, and vehicle which performs expression operation." In short: it's a car that shows feelings. The main impetus behind the invention is improved communication between drivers. The inventors noted that "because vehicles have no true expression functions, an occupant's emotion and intent can only be conveyed to people through limited means such as the vehicle's horn and directional lights." How often have you honked a thank you to someone, only to receive the bird in return? Shouldn't there be more refined signals to air your driving displeasure or gratefulness?

Enter the emotional automobile. This car would be tricked out with a series of patterned lights that would give the impression of facial features. According to the patent, "the headlights, antenna and windshield and exterior panels can be regarded as the vehicle's eyes, tail and a body surface, respectively." The headlights can open and close to represent eyelids. A panel of light-emitting diodes (LED) on the hood represent eyebrows or tear drops. And that's just the face--a vibrating antenna located on the back of the vehicle represents a tail, and even the wheels would be controlled to convey emotions. A jerky brake might signal the car to "rear up" in surprise by raising the height of the front wheels.

The vehicle would "decide" to express an emotion through a variety of input channels. The data collection comes in the form of input gathered by the car--speed, braking--and would be connected to a device that monitored the occupant's heart rate and pulse. From the data, the car would make a decision about which expression to exhibit, and that emotion would be relayed to the driver in a display panel. For example, for "anger," the display shows an "angry" expression and the speaker outputs an audio message: "I am angry now." The driver may override this emotion by a mechanical switch. It's not all just road rage, either. Other expressions include winking, looking around (orange lights); joyful, passionate, dangerous (red lights); and sad, crying and fearful (blue lights).

This isn't an invention for communication--it's about making your car a living being, to take the machine to the next level. For example, an aspect discussed in the patent was having the car exhibit a "welcome" reaction, where it blinks its happy signals and raises its antennae tail when the owner approaches. Likewise, when the occupant leaves, the car exhibits a "farewell" response by dimming its lights and sagging its tail. The vehicle's "joy" upon seeing its owner might enhance the occupant's affinity for the vehicle. The inventors noted that "as traffic grows heavier ... vehicles having expression functions ... could create a joyful, organic atmosphere rather than the simple comings and goings of inorganic vehicles."

This is all make-believe at this point. I can't imagine how drivers would want to complicate their driving experience with an emotive car, what with the existing distractions of cell phones, satellite radio and flashing billboards. But there's something about this patent that conflicts my response. On one hand, I feel sad that mankind has to build machines in order to have friends; but on the other hand, I admire the sheer glee of such daring. It embodies the folly and the sheer joy of being human.

Novella's Un-useful Invention would be a robotic cat holder; email her at [email protected]

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From the September 29-October 6, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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