Toyota is releasing a chatty robot that sits in your car’s cupholder

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You might not be able to have robot drive your car just yet, but at least you can get one to keep you company as you drive. Toyota announced today (Oct. 3) that it will be launching a tiny robot in 2017 called Kirobo Mini, that can fit in a car’s cupholder and hold a conversation with drivers to keep them alert on long drives.

Kirobo is about 10 cm (4 inches) tall when sat in a cupholder, and apparently can maintain eye contact and gesticulate as it chats in “casual conversation” with a driver, according to a release from Toyota. The release also says that the robot is a “cuddly companion always on hand for heart-touching communication,” even though it appears to be made out of a not-very-cuddly plastic and unlikely to be able to move you with its oratory skills.

The robot has a built-in camera that allows it to track people’s faces, as well as their emotions, apparently adjusting the way that it talks to you depending on its mood. Kirobo is intended to keep drivers engaged on long car journeys, and according to Toyota, it will be able to grow with its user, learning what they like and dislike. It’ll even be able to provide feedback on a driver’s ability behind the wheel (“That was a long drive. Good job.”), which certainly won’t get annoying to hear from a 4-inch toy robot after a grueling cross-country road trip.

It would be interesting to see how Softbank’s Pepper robot, which apparently can also read humans’ emotions, would hold up in a conversation with Kirobo.

Toyota has said that it’s investing $1 billion into robotics and self-driving cars over the next few years, aiming to improve humanity’s quality of life and provide assistance for moving us around as we age. While Kirobo isn’t exactly C-3PO, it certainly shows how the company is considering novel applications for robotics and artificial intelligence in cars.

Kirobo hanging out in its cupholder carrying case.
Kirobo hanging out in its cupholder carrying case.
Image: Toyota

In 2013, the robot’s bigger brother, also called Kirobo, spent a year and a half on the International Space Station to help researchers figure out how robots and humans can potentially coexist in the cramped confines of space vehicles. According to Toyota, when Kirobo landed back on Earth, its first words were: “From up above, the Earth glowed like a blue LED.”

Kirobo will cost about ¥39,800 ($393) when it goes on sale in Japan early next year at select car dealerships across the country. There’s also a ¥300 ($3) monthly service fee for using Kirobo’s dedicated companion app. Toyota said it is not clear if or when drivers in other countries will be able to pick up one of the bots.