Toyota's ultimate smartphone accessory: a mini-car

The Japanese carmaker shows its "Smart INSECT" concept, a single-seater that syncs with the driver's mobile phone

Toyota is demonstrating a new single-seater concept car at this year's Ceatec electronics show that works as a giant extension of the driver's smartphone.

The company's "Smart INSECT" vehicle has a pad in its dashboard for mobile handsets, from which it syncs online services while also providing wireless charging. It is billing the electric car as a networked device that will support users on the road much the way their phones do when they are on foot.

(See video of the Smart INSECT concept car on YouTube.)

The INSECT, whose name stands for "Information Network Social Electricity City Transporter," is packed with features now commonly found on phones and tablets. As a potential driver approaches its front, the car uses facial recognition to identify them, and the individual can then use voice and gesture controls to make queries or open the door and trunk.

Toyota's concept can communicate with its driver's home while on the road, checking whether the front door is locked or the settings of the air conditioning. The car has a large LCD display above the steering wheel that also shows information from the smartphone it is synced to.

"This car is based on the concept of connecting people, cars, and homes. It was developed by an IT engineer and has technologies such as telematics built in," said Yuji Amano, a group manager at Toyota.

The car links into to the "Toyota Smart Center," a platform that connects electric and hybrid cars with buildings and power companies, with the goal of making everything more efficient.

By accessing users' smartphones, Toyota will also gain access to information about its customers beyond their driving habits.

"The car uses data gathered from customers' actions to predict what they will do and suggest information to them," said Amano.

"One example might be in navigation, where the system uses what the user has done so far to suggest a destination."

Another example is advertising. In a demonstration, the INSECT takes a young woman to her favorite convenience store, then suggests a new snack that has recently gone on sale.

The car is based on Toyota's Coms personal electric vehicle, which sells in Japan for about US$9,000. The Coms can reach speeds of 60 kilometers per hour, and can drive for about 50 kilometers on a six-hour charge.

The Ceatec show, Japan's largest consumer electronics exhibition, runs in Makuhari, just outside of Tokyo from Tuesday through Thursday.

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