Editor's Letter

The Future is Now-ish

The A.I. era nips at our heels

Every month, heck, every day, there’s another story (like this one) about the coming Brave New Autonomous World. Automakers have been breathlessly announcing self-driving cars they claim are five years or fewer away — or even earlier if you’re Tesla and Elon Musk. Just look, all the cool brands are doing it! They’ll delight us with their ability to somehow make traffic jams and crashes go away. We’ll all be able to tune in, turn on, and tune out, take a nap, network, and most importantly shop — all while the car whisks us without drama to our destination.

Much of the latest news about the glorious, human-driverless future came during the recent annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. This year more than ever, automakers new and old used CES to crow about their coming autonomous breakthroughs and partnerships. Among the highlights:

Chrysler Portal concept front three quarter

• Chrysler Portal Concept: Boasting a 250-mile range from its electrified powertrain, this crossover, based loosely on the Pacifica, boasts lidar laser radar and vehicle-to-infrastructure tech to enable it to “talk” to smart traffic lights and other enabled infrastructure.

• Faraday Future FF 91: Another full-EV crossover, this one from the fledgling Chinese-owned brand, which Faraday says will be in production in 2018. Faraday claims it will be the world’s quickest SUV, with a 60-mph time of less than 2.4 seconds — when it isn’t driving you and using 3D lidar to help it see all that lies ahead. (Read more about it on page 18.)

• Honda NeuV (New Electric Urban Vehicle): A tiny, urban runabout EV that uses artificial intelligence to gauge the driver’s behavior and make recommendations, and when not in use by its owner could be deployed as an autonomous ride-sharing vehicle. It also has a dash-width touchscreen interface and a killer skateboard to get you that last mile, if necessary.

• Toyota Concept-i: This concept is also focused on artificial intelligence, and its team even created a personality called Yui to be your best artificial friend. The Concept-i’s mission is to make mobility tech fun to use. You can switch from autonomous to manual mode, and the car will let other vehicles know it. It also displays messages on a screen at the rear of the car to warn drivers of zombies or other obstacles ahead.

Not every automaker brought a brand-new concept car to CES, but those who didn’t still made plenty of headlines. Hyundai had a couple of autonomous Ioniq sedans equipped with lidar making the rounds on a short route around the Las Vegas Convention Center. It also announced a deal with IT giant Cisco to create a connected-car platform to interface with infrastructure and other cars on the road. BMW, which has already formed a partnership with a couple of other major players in the IT world, Intel and Mobileye, says it will develop a fleet of 7 Series test models with autonomous tech that will be on the road by late this year. It also displayed what it called “the i Inside Future sculpture,” a vision of its interior of tomorrow with a tech it called HoloActive Touch, designed to change the way drivers interact with vehicle systems.

Nissan detailed its future mobility strategy, boldly predicting it will achieve fatality- and emissions-free driving. One of the strategy’s pillars is its Seamless Autonomous Mobility system (SAM), which is based on elements of NASA software used to guide robotic vehicles. SAM enables a Nissan car to communicate with other cars, and it helps its artificial-intelligence tech navigate obstacles and other situations it hasn’t yet encountered. Mercedes-Benz made its future CASE (Connected, Autonomous, Shared & Service, Electric Drive) at CES and is determined to drive toward being a leader in all of those areas. Audi, which has been at the forefront of autonomous technology development, announced with its longtime IT partner NVIDIA that it will have vehicles equipped with advanced artificial intelligence on the road by 2020.

faraday future ff91 passenger side view

If all of this vehicle connectivity, electrified powertrain, and AI madness has you intrigued, confused, scared, and skeptical, you are not alone. As this year’s CES proved, though, we are apparently approaching a turning point.

There are major hurdles, of course, namely how messy the shift will be and how long it will take before autonomous vehicles truly rule the road, issues that Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, called out in his CES address. “Human nature, not surprisingly, remains one of our biggest concerns,” he said. “There are indications that many drivers may either under-trust or over-trust a system.”

Pratt’s point is well taken because no matter how humans get around in the future, we will still be at the center of it all. And no amount of artificial intelligence is going to change that reality.