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Toyota's pint-size travel buddy

Toyota's pint-size travel buddy

TOKYO -- Toyota Motor Corp. has long tried to pitch its vehicles as "irreplaceable companions." But in this age of artificial intelligence, the company is taking the man-machine relationship to a new level.

Enter Toyota's newest companion: the palm-sized Kirobo Mini robot. The 4-inch-tall black-and-white talking cherub, complete with cutesy yellow eyes, red boots and a Toyota logo emblazoned on its chest, takes its name from the Japanese words for "hope" and "robot."

Toyota plans to start selling the robot through dealerships in Japan next year for ¥39,800 ($390).

But this is no mere plaything. Kirobo Mini is designed to create a more personal bond between the car and its driver.

Toyota calls Kirobo Mini a "communication partner" and it can read facial expressions and recall past vehicle trips. Its job is to engage in casual conversation with people, keep them company and help them stay focused while driving. It will not be riveting discourse for anyone chatting in English because Kirobo Mini speaks only Japanese.

Kirobo Mini connects to a mobile phone via Bluetooth and uses a camera and voice and facial-expression recognition software in a setup that someday may work its way into vehicles.

For instance, if Kirobo Mini notices you looking glum, it asks: "Did anything sad happen?" It may even say, "Don't leave me behind," if you forget it in the car.

When connected with a dedicated vehicle or home, Kirobo Mini can gather even more data for conversation. "You had a long drive today," it might say.

Toyota introduced a first-generation talking Kirobo robot in 2013. The original Kirobo was about 12 inches tall and launched into orbit to keep Japanese astronauts company while onboard the International Space Station. Toyota unveiled a prototype of the Kirobo Mini at last year's Tokyo auto show.

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