Thursday, 7 January 2016

CES: automotive tech roundup

Car technology has grown in importance at CES in the nearly 10 years since Ford became the first automotive company to exhibit here. Much of the talk in the lead up to the show was about the pace of change towards self-driving or autonomous vehicles. Needless to say that this was an important topic for most of the manufacturers I visited, but it was far from the central focus.

Here’s my summary of what I saw and chatted about with Ford, Mercedes Benz, Audi, Toyota, Fiat, Hyundai, Kia and VW. Let’s start with the elephant in the exhibit hall:

Autonomous vehicles

The word on the street (see what I did there?) in the run up to the show was that there would be big announcements about self-driving technology. This didn’t really materialise, although Ford did suggest that they were hoping to get a ‘Level 4’ self-driving car on the roads for public consumption around 2020. ‘Level 4’, for those of you who are not doyennes of World of Jargon, means that the driver should not be ready to intervene and drive the car within certain geo-fenced areas. These are initially likely to be motorways, but could also include parking lots and other relatively controlled environments.

Even L4 is a frighteningly complex ask, requiring (amongst other things) a variety of sensors fused into one data environment, vast amounts of computing power and highly sophisticated algorithms. Amongst the most interesting demos was Toyota’s deep learning Priuses, which learned to drive over a period of a few minutes by sharing their experiences in a single network. Nvidia also demonstrated a real world example using proprietary hardware and software based on what they described as the cutting edge of academic research.

Nvidia is worth a wider mention as it demonstrated how high powered GPUs (Graphics Processing Units) and physics chips, both of which are intended for gaming, can be used for real time identification of objects and decision making. Their role in this sector hadn’t really occurred to me, so it was exciting to see it in action.

The most impressive demo though was on the Kia stand. A very unassuming-looking Kia Soul was actually a self-driver that could drive in traffic, follow other vehicles and valet park itself. I suspect that’s strictly Level 3, but this was a normal-looking hatchback car for normal people to do their normal things. Impressive.

Mobility solutions

Having not really ‘got’ what Ford were talking about at the Mobile World Congress, I think I am beginning to understand the industry’s attempts to add a thread of transport as a service to their business models. Ford does seem to be most advanced, showcasing a significantly improved version of their e-bike concept, with an app that enables users to decide when to park their car and how much to peddle to avoid being sweaty when they arrive at their destination.

My major issue with this type of OEM-driven solution is that they seem very ‘Sony’ in conception. You need a Ford bike with a Ford car and a Ford account. I wonder whether such things would put off consumers, however I haven’t done the research so I can’t tell you that!

Beyond the bike there were also a number of car sharing and navigation concepts, including Ford (again) proposing that users of Ford F250 pickup trucks might make them available for rent to drivers of Focus’ so that they can go to Home Depot. Interesting, but we shall see.

Toyota also showed off the FV2 mobility pod and a three seat, deconstructed city car, which I’d buy today if they’d let me. Toyota also appeared to be demonstrating a less-sophisticated version of Waze. Sadly I couldn’t persuade them to tell me about it or sell me the car!

Alternative power sources

Car drive trains are a bit old hat at the moment, however we shouldn’t forget that even 5 years ago most non-fossil fuel sources were science fiction. Electric is now practical and gaining some ground, thanks to the efforts of BMW, Nissan, Toyota and Tesla. VW had a whole stand dedicated to it, claiming 230 mile range for their ‘Buddy’ demo vehicle. I assume that in real world tests it actually does 23 miles… Toyota pushed hydrogen with a 2030 demo vehicle, whereas Mercedes focused on aerodynamics in their stunning Concept IAA.

There was lots of cool stuff on show in general with regard to future power, but it was very concept car focussed and therefore awesome but of little practical interest right now.

Car as a lifestyle accessory

I suppose this isn’t much news in that many cars are lifestyle accessories already… although what my 1962 Porsche 356 says about my lifestyle is anyone’s guess.

VW and Toyota both seem to share the view that cars should be socially connected and social connectors using wifi hubs and integration with connected homes to enable people to be better loved by their friends and family. VW, as mentioned above, even named their car ‘Buddy’. Yes.

Furthermore, both companies see their battery or fuel cell vehicles as serving a need for domestic power during outages. The Buddy has a solar panel on the roof to enable it to give power back to the grid and also claims to be able to charge other vehicles.

The main trouble I can see with this kind of facility in vehicles is the need to have perfect American suburban homes to make them practical. In the much denser, older parts of the world houses aren’t so much built around cars, making even charging them a challenge, let alone enabling them to give back. Even so, the US is the world’s largest car market, so I guess it makes sense to cater to its particular needs.

User experience

Something that passed without much comment but is clearly on the minds of designers is the user experience around these new, connected, intelligent vehicles. Examples of simplification and humanisation of the backend technology were in evidence on most of the major stands and differentiates the automakers from the OEMs serving them, who focused very much more on the technology than the package. Perhaps this is just a result of it being CES, but I’d like to think that exposure to Silicon Valley has finally made car manufacturers savvy to the needs of human beings, not car salesmen.

Final thought

Phew. That was a long ol’ post… and there’s more. The final thing I have to say on the subject of cars at CES was that the coolest one there was actually a scooter: the electric GOGORO from Taiwan, which debuted last year and features easily portable removable batteries that you can charge at home or at public charging stations. Simple and brilliant. Coming to the US in 2016.

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