Nissan takes robotic companion for a test drive

Develops robot to calm stressed drivers and make sure sleepy ones stay awake

Remember the last time you were stuck in traffic?

You were probably getting a little distracted and very frustrated. Wouldn't it have been nice if you had someone in the car, cheering you up, maybe even calming you down? Engineers at Nissan Motor Co. thought so and are working on an in-car robot that would do just that.

Nissan last week showed off its Robot Agent at the Tokyo Motor Show. The robot, which sits in the dashboard of the company's Pivo 2 concept car, uses built-in cameras to read the driver's facial queues and pick up on whether he's getting tired or stressed out. The robot, speaking in English or Japanese, will nod, shake its head and even blink while it talks the driver out of a bad mood or suggests that he pull over and take a break.

"Research shows that drivers in a positive frame of mind are less likely to be in accidents," said Jeannine Ginivan, a spokeswoman for Nissan USA. "The Robot Agent reads your facial expressions and will cheer you up or try to soothe you. If the robot can help create a connection with the driver or a feeling of happiness, the driver should be safer."

At this point, the robot is not wireless so it can't download the driver's e-mail or go online to check a weather or traffic report. It's also not hooked up to the car's GPS system, but Ginivan said the robot is in such an early stage of development that she can't say what could be added to the technology before it actually shipped.

When, or even if, it will ship is also up in the air, she added. "We have no plans right now to go into production," said Ginivan. "It's a very conceptual thing." She did, however, note that Nissan's lane-departure-prevention technology came out in production cars only a year after it first appeared in a concept car.

The robot is just one piece of the Pivo 2 concept automobile, which is an electric car that runs on plug-in, lithium-ion batteries. The car's wheels can turn 90 degrees so the driver can simply slide sideways into a parallel parking spot. That's not the car's only trick, though -- the Pivo 2's passenger cabin can turn 360 degrees. That means the driver would never have to back up. Instead, she simply could spin the cabin around and drive forward.

Ginivan said she expects Nissan to have electric cars on the road by 2010.

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