Ian Cartabiano received a degree in transportation design from Art Center in 1997, then moved south from Pasadena to Newport Beach, where he took a position at Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, Toyotaâs U.S. design studio. And while he continues to keep his hand in at Art Center, as an instructor, heâs been nothing if not busy.
That is, among the design projects Cartabiano has headed up are several concept vehiclesâthe 2005 FT-SX, 2006 F3R, 2008 A-BAT, 2012 Lexus LF-LCâas well as his share of production vehiclesâ2009 Venza, 2011 Sienna, 2013 Avalon, 2018 C-HR, 2018 Camry. Which is a panoply that encompasses things from sports cars to people movers, from a funky compact pickup to a stylish executive sedan.
Presently, Cartabiano is studio chief designer at Calty. Ordinarily, Calty Design Research is simply referred to as âCalty.â
Back in 2015 Toyota established, with a $1-billion investment, something that is more âresearchâ oriented in a more traditional sense, The Toyota Research Institute (TRI). That is, Dr. Gill Pratt, who, prior to joining Toyota, was a program manager in the Defense Sciences Office at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), says: âTRIâs mission is focused on Artificial Intelligence and includes four goals: First, to greatly enhance vehicle safety and someday create a car incapable of causing a crash. Second, to greatly increase mobility access for those who cannot drive. Third, to heavily invest in robotics to move people not just across town, but in their home, from room to room. And finally, to accelerate discovery in materials science by applying techniques from artificial intelligence and machine learning.â
Pratt and his teamâlocated in facilities in Palo Alto (think: Stanford), Ann Arbor (think: University of Michigan) and Cambridge (think: MIT)âare, essentially, working toward advancing autonomous vehicle technology. These are TRI employees, leveraging their resources and know-how with the universities that they are not-so-coincidentally located near.
So when you think of âresearch,â you probably think more along the lines of what is going on at TRI.
But designers need to research their concepts.Â And sometimes they get to work with people whoÂ
are developing artificial intelligence agents.
A few years ago, prior to the existence of TRI, Cartabiano and his colleagues at Calty started talking about creating a concept vehicle that would be unlike any that theyâd done before.
âWe spent months and months and months discussing philosophy about artificial intelligence and autonomous driving before we started sketching,â he recalls, adding that those two topics are âchanging the way we design and look atÂ cars and the driving environment.â
So, they decided that they would create a concept that would be âour vision forÂ future Toyota driving in 2030.â
They began working on the Concept-i.
There is a key word in that line about vision. Driving.
This is a 2030 vehicle that is meant to be driven. This is not to say that Concept-i doesnât have autonomous capability. The designers and the researchers worked very closely on the development of the capabilities of the vehicle and there the ability to tradeoff between the driver driving and the automated system taking control (even to the extent that there is a biometric system that keeps abreast of the driverâs attention and capability, so that should the on-board autonomous AI-based agentânamed âYuiââcalculate that the driver needs assistance, that will be supplied post-haste.
âA lot of autonomous cars shown over the last two years have a steering wheel that retracts. My personal opinion,â Cartabiano says, âis that thatâs just a gimmick to show that the AI is driving the car.â
The steering wheel in Concept-i doesnât retract.
Which is based on research that they did on retractable steering wheels. They determined that the fastest steering wheel could get back into position for a driver from being fully retracted is 20 seconds. âYou can travel quite a distance on the 405 in 20 seconds,â he notes.
There are also four wheels (âWe developed a new wheel-tire package and tire sizeâ). And pedals.
This is the important bit about the Concept-i as an automobile:
âAs advanced as the car is and the statement weâre making in some areas, âfun-to-driveâ is still key, and the driver is still in control in our car.
âAnd weâre trying to say that there is still a spot in the future where driving is fun and an enjoyable experience that can make your day betterâwe hope.â
But as Cartabiano (1) works for a living and (2) lives in SoCal, he knows that some days one might be a little frustrated at the end of the day and that on many days youâre not traveling very far on the 405 in 20 seconds.
Which is where Yui comes into play.
âWhen we thought about the concept for the AI agent in the vehicle,â Cartabiano says, âwe studied a lot of iterations. We thought about holograms and a 3D sphere and a literal robot.
âBut because this had to speak to a global audience we wanted to create a design for Yui that is universal, simple and approachable. We ended up going back to a 2D graphic. I know that in the age of holograms it is not that exotic, but if you want to speak to a wide global audience and move past language, it is really key.â
There is a âhomeâ for Yui on the center of the instrument panel, a circular area. Yui appears as a solid circle within a ring, yet its shape can morph.
That is, Cartabiano says, that in order to make the shape come to life, the Calty designers went back to the 12 rules of animation that came out of the Walt Disney Studios in the 1930s (e.g., squash and stretch, anticipation, exaggeration . . . ). In action, the image is cartoon-like, but not like a cheesy gimmick.
And while they worked to create something that could communicate without language, audible and visible language is important to Concept-iâs execution.
For example, there is a voice. âWe tried to choose a natural voice, like a friend.â And there is a displayâinside the car and outâof words, like âHello.â
âThe movement plus the voice plus the visual words creates an object that feels lively but doesnât pass the point of being creepy.â
Because Yui is going to be communicating with the driver, there has to be a sense of trust created with the AI.
So back to the frustrating day at work and the need to drive home in what is likely to be exceedingly slow-moving freeway traffic.
As previously mentioned, there are biometric sensors built into the vehicle. That could sense the driverâs level of agitation after getting into the car (heart rate, breathing, etc.). Because this vehicle has autonomous capabilities, it is connected to the outside world, so it would âknowâ the traffic conditions on the local roads. âIt could suggest that instead of the 405 I could take PCH homeâeven though it might be longer, it is a beautiful drive . . .â
That was the key word that they used for the design of the Concept-i. âThat informed every aspect of the design from the UX/AI to the interior design to the exterior to the color and trim to the graphics and lighting to the messagingâeverything.â
Cartabiano notes that a lot of the autonomous driving concept vehicles that have been developed of late are âvery cold, sterileâbasically a laptop on wheels to shuttle you from point A to B. We donât want that to be the future of driving.â
Cartabiano says that unlike traditional Calty design programs, with this vehicle they started the design from the inside, then designed around it, rather than sketching the exterior and then filling it.
The interior design is rather simple, with an emphasis more on sculptural forms than on gadgetry. He says that they are working on a 600-mm wide 3D heads-up display to accommodate much of the information that would otherwise be contained in gauges. One consequence of that display is that they were able, as Cartabiano puts it, to avoid âthe tyranny of the tablet,â explaining, âWe donât have an interior crowded by black, shiny screens. The interior is a beautiful, white sculpture. Thereâs still information shared, but it seems to come out of nowhere. When youâre done with the information, it will disappear.â
Starting the vehicle design from within has major implications on the exterior. âThe interior, moving from inside to outside, creates a really unique DLO, or window graphic, that seems to surround the white door panel; the window graphic loops around the door, shoots to the back of the car, then the glass dissolves into a fractal mosaic like a comet trails, then picks up again in the tail lamp.â
While the cabin is essentially surrounded by a polycarbonate-like material (âThe amount of the outside world you can see is refreshingâ), there is a solid white door beam that goes from the back half of the car forward. Cartabiano describes it as being a âbeautiful, solid, ceramic-like image.â
But the surface door panel surface does more than simply act as a design element for the overall vehicle.
While there is that central âhomeâ for Yui, the agent actually moves not only within the car, but outside, as well. That door beam is one of the places where there is external communication. As in a place where you see the word âHelloâ when approaching the car.
Cartabiano says that for the messaging on the door panel and the rear panel of the car, as well as for the headlights, theyâre using ultrathin LED panels and a new paint technology. Unless the LEDs are illuminated, there is just a solid surface. Like the information displayed on (or above) the instrument panel, when theyâre not needed, they disappear.
The word from many people is that as vehicles become autonomous, car ownership will decrease. As they become autonomous, driving will give way to the occupants being transported.
âI truly donât believe that,â Cartabiano insists. He believes that people will want to drive. He believes that driving will be enhanced with, not eliminated by, AI.
And he believes that if cars are beautifully designed, people will want to have them. Â Â