Exploring the future-car AI efforts of Toyota, Nissan, and Liberty Mutual

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I spent a week in Vegas with Yui, Sam, Otto, Kuri, Aristotle, and Ara. No, it wasn’t a bachelor party. It was the Consumer Electronics Show.

Artificial intelligence made a huge splash at January’s CES techstravaganza with Amazon’s Siri-trumping Alexa standing tallest amid a crowd of animatronic assistants bearing the aforementioned cool, folksy names. By means of introduction, Yui is Toyota’s AI presence, then there’s SAM (Nissan/NASA), Otto (Samsung’s Siri/Alexa wannabe), Kuri (Bosch’s $700 ambulatory Alexa), Aristotle (Mattel’s $300 robo-nanny/tutor), and Ara (Kolibree’s brainy toothbrush).

Yui lives in Toyota’s Concept-I, a futuristic vehicle that (refreshingly) encourages driving. Its controls don’t even fold away! Toyota Research Institute CEO Gill Pratt freely admitted to the technorati gathered at CES that nobody is even close to providing full Level 5 autonomy, so Yui merely seeks to add comfort and safety to our driving experience. She’ll operate secondary controls for us while observing our facial expression and then use her machine learning to infer our emotional state. When a darkening mood is detected, she’ll try mood-elevating lighting, music, or even conversation to soothe us. Hopefully she’ll have an off button for times when computer conversation is the stress elevator.

Nissan’s SAM proposes to bring Mars Rover autonomy down to Earth. NASA’s rovers explore the red planet autonomously until they encounter an impediment, at which point they stop and phone home for human assistance. Similarly, SAM proposes to handle all the driving until indecipherable conditions (such as cops manually directing traffic around a crash) trigger him to pull over and solicit mission control assistance from a remote human. Of course the NASA budget to keep operators standing by to assist its two-rover fleet might not scale to servicing millions of Level 5 autonomous SAMs.

If the NASA connection conjures unpleasant recollections of named AI computers going rogue— think 2001: A Space Odyssey or the Terminator movies—perhaps you’ll derive greater comfort from one of the squillions of AI technologies introduced at CES without pet names.

One that jumped out was insurance giant Liberty Mutual, which operates a tech startup incubator in Boston called Solaria Labs. Based on customer research, Liberty Mutual has developed two applications that leverage AI and big data to provide new customer value: a crash-damage estimator app and enriched navigation based on a trove of accident data.

Say you’re in a hurry, rushing out of an unfamiliar parking space before your car’s backup camera has sprung to life, when BAM! Where’d that low pole come from, and how much is this going to cost to fix? You upload a photo of the damage and enter the car’s year, make, and model info, and cloud-based computers analyze your photo pixel by pixel.

The Liberty Mutual system endeavors to determine where the smoothly tooled original bodywork ends and the accident damage begins, how deep the damage is, and what parts might have been harmed beneath the crumpled surface. The system probes the insurer’s vast archive of crash damage photos to search for reasonable comps, compiling an average repair cost. The program can then apply correction factors based on the vehicle, considering things such as parts-cost premiums for low-production specialty vehicles or higher body-shop rates for carbon-fiber or aluminum-intensive structures. The best part: no waiting around for an adjuster.


Then there’s the idea of hacking your commute. Safe routing delves into Liberty Mutual’s vast archive of time-stamped geographic crash data, which can identify the riskiest intersections and stretches of roadway along a particular route while noting the most dangerous hours of the day for each. Drivers can use this information in different ways. Trips can be scheduled or routed to avoid the worst roads and intersections entirely. Or a typical shortest/quickest route can be plotted with the system in order to warn the driver of the heightened risk areas, enhance vigilance, and reduce risk in those areas.

How will Liberty Mutual monetize these products? “We’re still figuring out what a go-to-market strategy would look like,” says Ted Kwartler, Liberty Mutual assistant VP of innovation. “We definitely will have a free tier because our focus here is on safety—on helping people understand risk and helping people have less worry.”

Sounds good. Just please refrain from naming your AI unit Libby and making me talk to it.



Two-time F1 champion will skip Monaco Grand Prix

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McLaren hasn’t fared well in Formula 1 as of late, with the team’s Honda power unit being the main cause of its woes. This has reportedly put team driver and Formula 1 star Fernando Alonso in a funk — something he has made apparent in interviews. In a stunning move that is perhaps an attempt to provide the Spaniard with some much needed fun, McLaren and Alonso on Wednesday announced he will skip this May’s Monaco Grand Prix — F1’s crown jewel — and head to Indiana to compete in the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso will drive for the Honda-powered Andretti Autosport team, which has won the race four times, including last year when IndyCar rookie and ex-F1 hopeful Alexander Rossi scored a shocking victory. Alonso will become the sixth driver on Andretti Autosport’s roster for the upcoming race, driving alongside Rossi, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Takuma Sato, and rookie Jack Harvey.

Alonso will drive a Dallara-Honda car with its exterior sporting the same orange McLaren livery also found on his F1 car. The team is also likely to keep many of Alonso’s sponsors. McLaren’s inclusion in the Indy 500 will mark the first time the race team has competed in the IndyCar series since its exit in 1979.

Fernando Alonso headshot

F1 drivers racing at Indy isn’t unprecedented, as swapping back and forth from each series used to be more common, with the likes of Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Jackie Stewart, Alberto Ascari, Jochen Rindt, Jacques Villeneuve, and Nelson Piquet competing in both throughout the years. However, Alonso’s skipping of Monaco is an unusual situation.

McLaren has not announced who will replace him, though former McLaren stalwart Jenson Button remains tied to the team. McLaren also has three test and development drivers: Oliver Turvey, Nobuharu Matsushita, and Nyck De Vries. Other than Button, Turvey is the only one of the candidates with actual experience behind the wheel of an F1 car, completing 698 test laps, and currently races in Formula E.

As for Alonso, he said, “I’m immensely excited that I’ll be racing in this year’s Indy 500 with McLaren, Honda, and Andretti Autosport. The Indy 500 is one of the most famous races on the global motorsport calendar, rivaled only by the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Monaco Grand Prix. I’m confident that I’ll get to grips with it fast. I’ve watched a lot of IndyCar action on TV and online, and it’s clear that great precision is required to race in close proximity with other cars on the far side of 220 mph. I realize I’ll be on a steep learning curve.”

Dario Franchitti, a three-time Indy 500 winner, four-time IndyCar champion, and a 24 Hours of Daytona winner, told MotorSport Alonso’s debut in IndyCar is “brilliant for IndyCar, absolutely brilliant. To see him going head-to-head with the likes of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Will Power, Helio Castroneves, these types of drivers, is just fantastic and it will make a massive splash around the world.” Franchitti did acknowledge that Alonso will need to learn quickly and make sure he’s digesting all the information he gets in order to succeed.

Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Company, which owns the Speedway and the Verizon IndyCar Series, said, “The entire IndyCar community — competitors, fans, media, everyone — is delighted and excited at the prospect of a driver as brilliant as Fernando making his debut in our series. Even better, he’ll be making that debut in the greatest race of our year, the world-famous Indy 500.”

McLaren commercial boss Zak Brown — who has strong business ties to IndyCar and who was behind the idea of Alonso racing at Indy — said, “I would love to have Fernando to be in two places at one time but we can’t, at least that technology has not yet been developed. I think the opportunity for the prize in Indianapolis is very large and an opportunity that none of us want him to miss.”

Alonso will fly to Indianapolis after the Spanish Grand Prix to begin testing. Indianapolis 500 practice begins May 15, with the race scheduled for Sunday, May 28.

Source: IndyCar, MotorSport