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Toyota’s new concept car—the aptly named Concept-i unveiled at CES—vows to revolutionize the relationship drivers have with their vehicles. Here’s what UX designers can learn from the auto manufacturer’s new approach to the driver experience.

When it comes to automobile innovation, people love talking about driverless cars. Yet it wasn’t autonomous vehicles that caught our attention at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas—at least not in the conventional sense.

Instead, it was this fundamental design philosophy emphasized in the unveiling of Toyota’s new concept car the Concept-I that impressed us at an event that is ripe with the latest technological innovations in the auto industry and beyond.

“All this talk of advances in the automotive technology, it’s really easy to lose sight of why we build cars,” said Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations at Toyota, in his presentation at CES. “We make them for people.”

We make them for people.

Rather than focusing solely of this vision of futuristic driverless cars taking over our roads, Toyota painted a different, more immediate picture, one where drivers build relationships with their vehicles in ways they haven’t before—a two-way road where our cars know us back.

“How well do our cars know us?” he asked. “This was not a question we could answer—until now.”

When UX Takes The Wheel

Central to Toyota’s focus on the driver-car-relationship is the idea that artificial intelligence can be used for more than just helping us to get from point a to point b. What if, they imagined, our vehicles could learn to understand our emotions? What if they could sense us getting angry or upset, for example, and anticipate a reaction we might make before we make it?

We spend so much time in our vehicles that they become our homes away from home—and shouldn’t our homes keep us safe?

Toyota imagines a future where vehicles are incapable of causing a crash regardless of driver ability, but in the meantime they express a strong focus on the user experience of driving right now. They see the Concept-i as a vehicle that is “a guardian as well as a chauffeur.”

“Artificial intelligence is our future, but we also know people come first,” Carter said. “As technology advances, we are focusing on that relationship and interaction between the car and the driver. How do you turn a functional relationship with your car into something that is fun and emotional? Our hope is to create a warm and friendly experience with artificial intelligence that learns and grows with you—the driver.”

How do they plan to do this? While the presentation didn’t reveal too many details, Toyota talked a lot about how vehicle AI could learn our preferences and lifestyle, remember where we like to go, anticipate our needs and notice if we are happy or sad.

This technology is already in many of the applications we use today. Just this morning, my weather app Sunshine told me to layer up because today’s conditions are (what I would consider) freezing. Other apps monitor our heartbeats and breathing patterns, remind us to take medication, check in on our anxiety levels, phone our grandmothers on their birthdays and so on. It only makes sense that cars would become increasingly intuitive as AI becomes more and more intertwined with our daily lives.

“The car has never failed to inspire us, but as we spend more time together, it will grow to truly understand us.”

Extending Kinetic Warmth to Your UX

Toyota said the concept car is defined by a design concept they’ve coined “kinetic warmth.” It’s a philosophy where the future does not start with technology, but rather the experience of the people who use it. It’s the idea that an experience should be immersive, warm and energetic.

It is such a basic concept, but one that can be neglected when we’re distracted by all the shiny new technology and features of today. It’s a reminder of how vital it is to consider the emotions of the person experiencing your UX, and of how there are things happening in your users’ lives that may be unrelated to your application, but they’re stilling leaving junk in their trunk.

Driving is the perfect example of this—just think of all the things that cross your mind when you’re on the road and how that impacts the drive. These thoughts may not seem related to the driving experience, yet they are in fact a crucial part of the user’s journey.

Follow the Road

What does this mean for the auto industry? What does this mean for UX design?

Consider this: automobile sales hit a record high in 2016 while consumer confidence in America soared to a level not seen in some 15 years. More than 17.5 million vehicles were sold and analysts are predicting 2017 sales will be comparable. The auto industry is booming again and people are paying attention.

So next time you’re working on your latest UX project, ask yourself this: are you designing for people first, or technology first? And which do you want at the wheel?

Sheena Lyonnais

Sheena Lyonnais

Sheena Lyonnais is a Toronto-based writer, editor and digital specialist. She works in content marketing by day, studies digital strategy by night, and practices yoga somewhere in between. Follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.

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