AI, biometrics could accelerate self-driving cars

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Las Vegas — Artificial intelligence and biometrics systems may be the new hot-button technologies to help automakers develop and deploy connected and self-driving vehicles.

Several automakers and suppliers at the CES technology trade show this week in Las Vegas premiered new cars and features with one or both of the technologies. The systems could be used simultaneously to assist travelers in their daily commutes, enhance security — and keep drivers engaged while cars are in self-driving mode, just in case human intervention is needed.

“Artificial intelligence will enable fully autonomous cars much quicker than otherwise possible,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. “Artificial intelligence is more than a component of self-driving technology, it’s really a requirement to fulfill the promise of safer and more efficient personal transportation.”

Basic AI-assistance systems such as Apple Inc.’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are slowly being integrated into some vehicles. Automotive executives see the roles of both — as well as more advanced systems — expanding in the near future.

“We connect with our cars. We build an emotional relationship,” said Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota Motor Corp. “And thanks to the research into advanced artificial intelligence, we think the future of the automobile is a vehicle that connects with us.”

That connection could include the car talking with drivers on a long trip, playing games for entertainment, personalizing drives and commutes to be less stressful, and even save lives.

“If the car knows your blood pressure is elevated, it can change the music you’re listening to or how much information it’s feeding to you to reduce stress,” Brauer said. “The car might even recognize an impending heart attack and dispatch an ambulance to your location.”

Toyota on Wednesday unveiled its Toyota-i concept car with an “AI agent” — nicknamed “Yui” — that Carter referred to as “Alexa on steroids.”

The system, the Japanese automaker believes, could learn driving patterns and schedules as well as use advanced technologies to measure emotion. The latter, using biometric facial recognition software, could allow Yui to monitor a driver and map emotions against where and when the driver travels.

Drivers under certain conditions would have the choice of automated or manual driving based on their personal preferences, with the Concept-i monitoring driver attention and road conditions, with the goal of increasing automated driving.

“We’ll drive on the highway for awhile; I will switch to automated-drive mode,” Yui said during a demonstration at CES, as the driver’s seat reclined and a lower back massage started. “You should have a wonderful drive on the road ahead.”

Nissan Motor Co. on Thursday announced plans to launch a new “Seamless Autonomous Mobility,” or “SAM,” system that combines in-vehicle artificial intelligence with human support to help autonomous vehicles make decisions in unpredictable situations.

The technology, the company believes, will enable millions of driverless cars to co-exist with human drivers at an accelerated pace. It can help cars navigate unforeseen situations that occur on city streets, such as accidents, road construction or other obstacles.

“This technology will make it possible for more autonomous vehicles to be on the road much sooner,” Nissan Chairman and CEO Carlos Ghosn said Thursday during a keynote speech at the show.

The Japanese automaker did not announce when the system could deploy. But one executive said the technology could be deployed “sooner than you think.”

Nissan, Ghosn said, is in talks with Microsoft Corp. to assess how the tech giant’s Cortana personal assistant could help make driving more convenient and efficient.

Hyundai Motor Co. was the first mainstream automaker to connect cars with homes using Amazon Echo and its new Blue Link infotainment system for the company’s cloud-based voice service known as Amazon Alexa. The partnership allowed the South Korean’s automakers owners through Alexa to lock, unlock and remote start.

Ford Motor Co. this week, amid a handful of new partnerships, announced it is partnering with Amazon to make Alexa compatible with cars that have Ford’s SYNC 3 vehicle touchscreen.

Improving security

Aside from autonomous technologies, biometrics could be used to help increase convenience and security for drivers.

German auto supplier Continental AG this week showcased a new ignition system that uses a fingerprint scanner to authenticate a driver and start the vehicle. The system, combined with a keyless entry using a smartphone or key fob, could make it so keys or fobs are no longer needed.

The system could be connected to an interior camera, which recognizes the driver’s face and automatically personalizes seat and mirror position, music, temperature and navigation.

“The integration of biometric elements brings our expertise in system integration to the fore, as we are linking our access-control solution with other intelligent systems in vehicles to ensure increased comfort and safety for all passengers,” said Andreas Wolf, head of Continental’s Body & Security business unit.

The personalization aspects were featured on Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Chrysler Portal concept as well as Faraday Future’s first production vehicle that both debuted at the show.

Chrysler’s system included facial recognition and voice biometrics to recognize users. They are able to customize settings to preferred exterior and interior lighting, music, enhanced audio settings, favored destinations and more.

California electric vehicle startup Faraday Future announced a personalized ID system when unveiling its FF 91.

The FFID remembers seating positions, favorite music and movies, ideal temperatures, and driving style settings. The system, the company said, works with advanced facial recognition technology inside and outside of the car to allow drivers and passengers to unlock the car without a key and automatically adjust interior settings.

Costs vs. benefits

Not all are sold on the personalization aspect of biometrics. Glen De Vos, vice president of engineering and services for supplier Delphi Automotive PLC, said although the personalization is an “interesting area,” there are less expensive ways —buttons, key fobs and others — to achieve the same benefits.

“The cost to add those systems and the benefit of having them is kind of a hard sell,” he said. “There are other ways to achieving personalization and security than having a camera.”

Delphi is releasing an infrared camera system that monitors drivers to see if they’re paying attention, but it doesn’t differentiate individuals. De Vos said the company believes that approach is much more practical because most have concluded that if a vehicle is in self-driving mode or fully autonomous, the car must be able to monitor the driver and cabin.

“That piece of it is going to grow, there’s no question about that,” he said. “But on the biometrics side, quite frankly, we haven’t seen the cost-benefit for really making a business case yet.”

Both technologies as well as others are expected to be featured at next week’s Detroit auto show.