Emotional Engine: A Pod Race Odyssey

In 2001, I was amazed to learn of an odd little virtual pet that also happened to be an odd little car. Toyota and Sony partnered to develop a concept vehicle called the Toyota Pod, which was shown off at the Tokyo Motor Show that year. Despite (or perhaps because of) its bizarre aesthetic and AI pet tech, I found the Pod utterly fascinating. It featured a dynamic LED display which changed colors depending on its “mood.” It sported a tail-like antenna that would “wag” playfully from time to time. The Pod also had a variety of in-car sensors to track the driver’s mood and temperament. If they drove erratically, the car would offer a calming critique. If they were about to doze off, it would wake them up.

For all the novelty of its AI (for the time), the Pod’s tech seemed mundanely practical — and weird as hell. I was still a couple years away from driving (legally) at that point, but I could only daydream of taking this adorably dystopic slice of sci-fi for a spin.

Toyota’s cute Pod concept car. Well, maybe “cute” isn’t the best word to describe a potential HAL on wheels.

[IRL images from New Atlus]

OK, so the Pod sounds pretty goddarn creepy in 2021. Knowing what we know about the sheer ubiquity and invasiveness of sensory tracking tech today — and how recklessly our private data is treated in general — it is impossible to imagine a car like the Pod wouldn’t psychologically manipulate us into buying bunk protein supplements before casually leaking our unencrypted biometric data to the darkweb. That’s assuming it doesn’t get hacked and try to murder us first.

Cynicism aside, I’ve always had a cursory interest in bizarre consumer tech concepts like the Toyota Pod and it certainly captured my imagination in 2001. Even more intriguing was the idea that I might one day be able to drive it, if only virtually.

Following the blockbuster release of Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec, Sony and Polyphony Digital launched a series of glorified demos — dubbed Gran Turismo Concept — to coincide with marquee auto shows in Tokyo, Seoul, and Geneva. Among their small collections (by GT standards) of playable vehicles were several unproduced concept cars, including the Toyota Pod. The GT Concept demos were never released in North America, and, frankly, I hadn’t the means nor will to up and buy a Japanese PlayStation 2 just to cruise around in a silly little toaster car.

But now I do and so I have.

As a Gran Turismo game, GT Concept is fairly unremarkable. It features a handful of courses, several dozen cars, and its game modes include single race, free run, two-player versus, and license test; the latter is a lap time trial for unlocking vehicles. I recently bought the original 2001 Tokyo version of GT Concept, but apparently the 2002 Tokyo-Seoul and Tokyo-Geneva versions are loaded with a lot more cars and things. Not that it really matters to me — I’m really just here for the Pod. So after a couple of dusty, winding laps through the Tahiti Maze II rally course, it’s finally mine.

Now let’s take this four wheeled, AI-infused toaster for a spin, shall we?

Aesthetically, the Toyota Pod is as evocative as its unorthodox. The showroom lights glisten off its aggressively symmetric body. Its bulbous form is hardly subtle, but the gentle hue of its LEDs lull me with an inescapable allure.

Nothing weird here. Please make yourself at home.

We hit the Tokyo course for a quick free run. It’s a slow start off the line but once the Pod gets up to speed…well, it’s a leisurely cruise at most. I topped out this puppy at 160 km/h on the Route 246 straightaway but that’s the exception more than the rule. The Pod is quite slow and lumbering, overall. The upside is it we can take most corners like a champ without much braking at all. The handling is clunky, sure, but not unreasonably so. In a betrayal of its wobbly, top-heavy form, the Toyota Pod is deceptively stable. It’s a joy to drive, really.

After a few practice laps, my Pod and I become fast friends. Now it’s time to meet up with some fellow Pod pals…

Maybe there’s a Star Wars: Episode 1 joke in there somewhere. I dunno.

With their own exclusive race course, the Pods have a secret playground all to themselves. It’s not an expansive track but it is a welcome variation of GT’s perpetually-dusk, urban Special Stage courses, which I’ve always had a soft spot for. Comprised of a short section of highway and pitlanes, this twilit course is neatly suspended above the city streets below. Which city? Now that is a good question.

It’s Pod-ty time!

Lap after lap, the Pods frolic and chirp. They jostle; they play; they bowl over traffic cones purely for their amusement. Or is it for my amusement? (It’s getting harder to tell at this point) To make things more interesting, there is a mandatory handbrake zone towards the end of each lap, where all Pods must come to a complete stop for a second before continuing the race. Without consensus over how and when they ought to stop, it’s delightfully ripe for shenanigans.

At any rate, these Pods are living their best life and I’m just along for the ride.

Again!

Between the AI toaster car and its human driver, a bond develops. I feel I’m beginning to connect with my new Toyota Pod on a deeper, more emotional level. I grow instinctually more attuned to its feelings, its need for kinship, and its hopes for a gentler and more just world. What was once a cacophony of haphazard beeps, dings, and lights has evolved into a discernable language, imbued with meaning. For the first time, we truly understand each other — and we are not that different.

The Pods exhibit a range of expressions, though their full nuance may well be unknowable. However simplified, Pod chatter is translated and illuminated in a LED display for basic human interpretation. Below is my best understanding of what each color represents:

Blue: This is the Pod’s default state but it is one of wistfulness, not contentment. Just like us, Pods are very social creatures. In absence of others to connect with, a blue-lit Pod is a lonely Pod.

Purple: Occasionally, Pods will find companionship on the raceway, albeit with walls and barriers instead of friends. When this happens, its purple-lit antenna tail slumps in an expression of profound embarrassment for its driver. This is undesirable.

Yellow: For our energetic Pod friends, yellow may represent a complex and even contradictory mix of emotions, but it is generally the manifestation of excitement. Pods glow a radiant yellow when others are near, expressing their enthusiasm with jovial tones and a wagging tail.

Red: Sometimes our Pod friends get a little carried away with their excitement. If they get too close, the Pods will emit an aggrieved red hue as they collide with each other. This stirs up mutual frustration and spoils the fun for everyone. Nothing makes Pods happier than great company but they must also learn to respect boundaries.

Pods have feelings. It is said they might even have the most feelings.

I love the Pod, a.k.a. my new best friend. In a perfect world, its LEDs would be a joyous yellow at all times, without any hint of disappointment ever. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. Together, I’m confident we will overcome life’s harshest and most unexpected challenges — whether red, blue, or purple. I only wish my Pod had a little more cabin space. These protein powder canisters are starting to take up a lot of room.

Welcome to the Pod parade…
…where the fun never stops.
Ever.

Oh.

Me: “Stop! Open the pod doors.”
Pod: “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Fuck.

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