MIT researchers developing robotic driving companion

Need help staying awake or finding the cheapest gas? In-car robot is designed to help

Ever wish you had someone to accompany you on a long drive -- a companion that knows you well, can help you avoid traffic jams, maybe even help find the cheapest gas along the route home from work?

If so, a research team at MIT may be developing something for you.

The university today announced that MIT scientists are working to develop a robot dubbed the Affective Intelligent Driving Agent (AIDA) that's designed to sit in motor vehicles. According to MIT, the team hopes the robot can help change the way people interact with their vehicle.

"With the ubiquity of sensors and mobile computers, information about our surroundings is ever abundant," said Professor Carlo Ratti, director of MIT's SENSEable City Lab, in a statement. "AIDA embodies a new effort to make sense of these great amounts of data, harnessing our personal electronic devices as tools for behavioral support. In developing AIDA, we asked ourselves how we could design a system that would offer the same kind of guidance as an informed and friendly companion."

The AIDA team, along with partners Audi and the Volkswagen Group of America's Electronics Research Lab, is designing the robot to be embedded in the vehicle's dashboard, pulling in real-time information from the Internet about traffic, and about businesses and gas stations along the driver's route. The robot is programmed to remember the driver's usual routes to and from work and other regular destinations like the local grocery story. AIDA also will monitor the driver's facial expressions for signs of fatigue or agitation, MIT said.

The robot is designed to communicate with drivers through visual cues like winks or smiles, as well as verbally offering up information on alternate routes or vehicle fuel levels.

"When it merges knowledge about the city with an understanding of the driver's priorities and needs, AIDA can make important inferences," said Assaf Biderman, associate director of the SENSEable City Lab, in a statement. "Within a week, AIDA will have figured out your home and work location. AIDA can also give you feedback on your driving, helping you achieve more energy efficiency and safer behavior."

MIT didn't say when it expects to complete the project.

A lot of auto companies and universities have been looking into various ways to meld vehicles and robots.

In the fall of 2007, Nissan showed off its Robot Agent at the Tokyo Motor Show. The Robot Agent, designed to sit in the dashboard of the company's Pivo 2 concept car, uses built-in cameras to read the driver's facial queues for signs of fatigue or stress. The robot, speaking in English or Japanese, is designed to nod, shake its head and even blink while it talks the driver out of a bad mood. If that doesn't work, Robot Agent is programmed to suggest that the driver pull over and take a break.

A year ago, a Stanford University researcher told Computerworld that for the struggling U.S. auto industry to survive over the long term, Detroit must take back its technology leadership role and start developing self-driving cars.

Sebastian Thrun, a professor of computer science and director of the artificial intelligence laboratory at Stanford, said technology is revolutionizing what automobiles can do. He added that the U.S. lags behind Europe, Japan and South Korea when it comes to finding ways to use robotics to make cars safer, more energy-efficient and easier to use.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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