An Automobile With Feelings


Published: July 26, 2004

THE expression "road rage" usually refers to infuriated drivers who lose control of their temper and lash out at other motorists. But what if a car could also express anger, crouching low on its wheel base and glowering with red headlights like a lion about to pounce?

Four inventors working for Toyota in Japan have won a patent for a car that they say can help drivers communicate better by glaring angrily at another car cutting through traffic as well as appear to cry, laugh, wink, or just look around.

The inventors explain in the patent that they want drivers to have more than a one-note horn and on-off headlights to signal other drivers. The horn sounds the same, they write, whether a driver is "asking for permission to cut in front and in showing gratitude for having been allowed to cut in front," so other people often do not know what the honking is about.

That was not good enough for the inventors - Kenji Mori, Naoto Kitagawa, Akihiro Inukai and Simon Humprhies - who work for Toyota Jidosha Kabushiki Kaisha of Japan, which owns the United States patent issued last month. In it they describe a car with an antenna that wags, an adjustable body height, headlights that vary in intensity, and hood slits and ornamentation designed to look like eyebrows, eyelids and tears, all of which could glow with colored lights to create moods and physical features.

The inventors believe these features on cars will make driving more entertaining. In the patent they write that "as traffic grows heavier and vehicle use increases, vehicles having expression functions, such as crying and laughing, like people and other animals do, could create a joyful, organic atmosphere rather than the simple comings and goings of inorganic vehicles."

"Such emotive, organic vehicles could also lead occupants to have great affinity for their vehicles, and make the driving experience more comfortable," the inventors add.

The car comes with a computer and software system that detects road and vehicle conditions like steering angle, braking or speed. Drivers or passengers can also enter information about their moods into the system. But it is the car that expresses an emotional reaction.

"The headlights, antenna and windshield and exterior panels can be regarded as the vehicle's eyes, tail and a body surface," the inventors write. As a baseline, they describe a "sleeping" car as one with "the shutters, or eyes, closed, the antenna limp and the glass and exterior panel are a dark color and the vehicle height is lowered."

An "awake" car would have "open shutters, headlights fringed with complementary 'eyebrows,' an erect antenna and brighter glass and exterior panels."

Eyebrows and eyelids would be created by lights appearing above the headlights, and a "tear" would be displayed by another light installed below the headlights. The patent says any of the lights can remain on for a period of time, blink on and off, or fade from bright to faint. The eyelids can close in any direction - top to bottom, bottom to top and diagonally. The eyebrow shape can change, and the brows, lids and tears can be featured in different colors, the patent says.

Data on the state of the car, the road and the driver is collected and stored in the car's computer, which attributes points to certain factors - like "the occupant reacts to reckless cutting in," or speed, handling angle or brake pressure - that might contribute to an angry response. When a sufficient number of points are accumulated to indicate anger, the computer's software will trigger a reaction in the car's appearance.

"The state of angry will be changed either over time or in response to soothing input supplied by the occupants," the patent says. "When the number of points is reduced below the threshold value, the vehicle no longer shows angry."

The patent includes a chart that shows how the car might display a number of emotions. It shows categories that correlate driver reaction, road or car condition to color and position of features like the "eyebrow," the antenna, the headlights and the vehicle height.

For anger, the hood lighting color glows red while the eyebrow lights up and the headlights, antenna and height are in standard position.

But if the driver is joyful, the car may "wink" to let another car go first by changing the hood lighting and the eyebrow to orange, shading the headlight so it appears half-closed and causing the antenna to vibrate from left to right as if it were wagging.

The chart also indicates that a car with mechanical trouble might "cry" by displaying dark blue hood lighting, a shaded headlight, a lit eyebrow and a blinking "tear" light.

And if the "sudden appearance of a vehicle or pedestrian causes sudden braking," the car will express surprise by having its hood lights turn orange, its eyebrows light up red, the headlights shaded and the vehicle height lowered in the rear.

The patent says the inventors chose the colors, shadings and positions "in consideration of human psychology." It explains that "some reactions may be expressed using warm colors," and cites orange as appropriate for winking, feeling fine or looking around, and red as the right choice for anger or surprise.

"Meanwhile, some other reactions such as sad, crying, fearful and so forth may be expressed using cold colors," like green or blue, the patent says.

The inventors also say their idea, which was awarded Patent No. 6,575,593, is not just for cars. They note it could also be used with motorcycles, ships or aircraft.

Patents may be viewed on the Web at or may be ordered through the mail, by patent number, for $3 from the Patent and Trademark Office, Washington, D.C. 20231.