Tech Takedown: Separating the Vaporware from the Software and Hardware at CES
What we think you’ll see in your next new car
The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is always a potpourri of the present and future, practical and fantastical. It's where pragmatism and aspiration collide in a torrent of ones and zeros, where automakers unveil technologies destined for your next car with those that might never see the light of day—sometimes at the same booth.
I've canvassed the expansive Las Vegas Convention Center during CES for some 30 years now, and if there's one thing I've developed, it's a keen sense of being able to separate the big ideas from the BS. Here's my take on the tech tales of CES18—good, bad, and otherwise.
Ford's Self-Driving Future and Sync Present
Ford CEO Jim Hackett's CES keynote was full of philosophical musings on the cities of tomorrow and taking the streets back from cars—although addressing the automaker's stalled stock price wasn't part of his pontification. Hackett and members of Ford's executive team instead laid out their vision for autonomous and connected cars and how the company will use data and connectivity to make lives better for commuters. Less clear is how those developments will make money for the automaker.
Ford says it will leverage its recent investment in Autonomic, a mobility data firm, to create a Transportation Mobility Cloud. The automaker calls it an open platform for , which will allow third-party developers to build tailored apps around vehicle connectivity, route mapping, and more. Ford also announced a partnership with Qualcomm to develop cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) capability. The goal is to use 5G connectivity in order to allow cars, roadway infrastructure such as traffic lights, and the rest of the world that comprises the Internet of Things to communicate and share information.
Together, Ford envisions its mobility services platform and C-V2X communications system enabling autonomous vehicles to move around urban environments in high volumes, ultimately influencing the way people and goods get around. As part of this vision, Ford has also partnered with Postmates, an urban delivery service, to explore how self-driving technology could change the home-delivery business and help struggling brick-and-mortar retailers reach and retain customers.
More immediately, Ford wants to help drivers get out of a jam by becoming the first automaker to integrate the popular Google-owned Waze navigation and traffic app into its dashboards via Sync 3.
Toyota Saves Retail and Fuel
Toyota introduced one of the more ambitious CES visions with its e-Palette Alliance, part of the automaker's Mobility Services Platform. (Notice a trend here?) The literal vehicle for the platform unveiled by CEO Akio Toyoda is called e-Palette, a kind of autonomous electric lorry. It looks similar to other autonomous shuttles, but Toyota says e-Palette is "scalable and customizable for a range of Mobility as a Service" applications.
Beyond providing autonomous ride-sharing—basically a small city bus, sans a driver—and creating a true mobile office for commuters, Toyota envisions e-Palette as an opportunity to save small brick-and-mortar retailers from being driven out of business by e-commerce giants like Amazon. During a presentation at CES, Toyota demonstrated how a local leather craftsman (complete with a hipster beard) could deliver from his workshop to customers' doorsteps.
Get a fleet of e-Palettes together, and you could have a pop-up craft fair, festival, or concert almost anywhere. But for all the talk of helping small businesses and artisanal entrepreneurs, Toyota also announced that its e-Palette launch partners include Amazon, Pizza Hut, Uber, and Chinese ride-hailing service Didi along with Mazda, which will collaborate on vehicle planning and development.
While waiting for platoons of e-Palettes to hit the road, Toyota is readying its next-generation automated-driving research vehicle based on a Lexus LS 600h L. Toyoda also repeated the automaker's commitment to have an alternative-fuel option for every model line by 2025, including offering more than 10 purely battery electric vehicles from 2020 forward.
Nissan Reads a Driver's Mind
Nissan had one of the more bizarre CES innovations: brain-to-vehicle (B2V) technology. It uses electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brainwaves via a skullcap outfitted with electrodes in an effort to read a driver's mind and intentions. If drivers think about hitting the brakes just before some jerk cuts them off, the car would know and ease off the throttle and pre-charge the brakes.
A driver's thoughts could also alert, say, a blind-spot warning system that they want to change lanes before even activating a turn signal. And once human drivers are out of the equation and vehicles become autonomous, B2V tech could detect and analyze occupant discomfort levels and change the self-driving configuration of a robo-car to compensate.
With overall mobility investments approaching $100 billion over just the past five years, Nissan also announced at CES that, along with Renault and Mitsubishi, it will bet as much as $1 billion to fund mobility startups over the next half decade. The trio of automakers will invest as much as $200 million during the Alliance Venture fund's first year to finance new developments in electrification, autonomy, connectivity, and artificial intelligence.
Mercedes-Benz is in the MBUX
While the Mercedes-Benz booth featured its forward-reaching Concept EQA and Smart Vision EQ concepts to demonstrate what it believes electric and autonomous mobility will look like in the future, the brand also used CES 2018 to unveil the Mercedes-Benz User Experience infotainment system (MBUX). It ditches its present kludgy COMAND controller for a touchpad in the center console and a screen that stretches from the instrument cluster to the center of the dash.
MBUX uses artificial intelligence technology to create what Mercedes calls an "intuitive operating system," augmented by a new voice-activated assistant that can be summoned with the phrase "Hey, Mercedes." Far from vaporware, Mercedes said it will introduce MBUX as standard equipment in the automaker's next-generation compact car set to make its debut later this year.
Hyundai-Kia One-Two EV-HFC Punch
Hyundai and Kia have traded off participating at CES each year, but in 2018 the Korean auto brands occupied side-by-side booths to introduce new alternative-fuel crossovers. Hyundai unveiled its Nexo hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, which it says can go up to 370 miles between fillings and will be available in California later this year. Kia showcased its Niro EV concept, which will launch in 2020 and is reportedly good for 238 miles of range on a full charge, adding a battery electric offering to the hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the Niro already on sale.
Kia also promised to produce 16 hybrid, all-electric, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2025 and said it intends to operate a large-scale autonomous technology test fleet on public roads starting next year in a bid to commercialize Level 4 autonomous driving technology by 2021. Hyundai has also teamed with Cisco to introduce an Ethernet-based in-car connectivity architecture to create a bigger pipe for the large amounts of data that future vehicles will produce and to enable greater security. Although we've heard about in-car Ethernet for years, Hyundai boasted at CES that it will implement the technology into production cars in 2019.
Byton Busts a Move
One of the car companies with the most buzz at CES was Byton, another in a long line of Chinese EV startups. Byton says the range of its base model SUV with a single rear-mounted motor and 71-kW-hr battery pack is just under 250 miles, and a dual-motor version with a 95-kW-hr battery pack is good for 323 EV miles.. But it's the reported price of the base model ($45,000) that had the media at CES calling the concept EV the latest China-based Tesla killer.
Although the exterior of the Byton concept is unremarkable, the interior screams future, with a 49-inch screen spanning the dash from door to door and a 10-inch screen embedded in the steering wheel just for the driver when the vehicle is in autonomous mode. Buttons? The Byton concept don't need no stinking buttons. Functions are controlled by hand gestures with what the company calls Air Touch sensors.
Byton says the car will go on sale in the Chinese market next year and in the U.S. and Europe in 2020 (something else we've heard before). Next up is a Byton sedan and a utility vehicle using the same platform. But we can't help but recall another Chinese EV startup, Faraday Future, which also caused a stir at last year's CES before flaming out. And even though it's a concept, the Byton vehicle on display at CES had elements that looked pieced together rather than ready for production.
Nvidia Hooks Up with Everyone
Nvidia is like the hot chick or hunk in high school that everyone wants to hook up with, and the high-flying chipmaker continued to woo automakers and connect with Tier 1 suppliers and other AV players in Vegas. Uber chose Nvidia to supply the AI computing system for its fleets of self-driving cars and trucks, and VW's I.D. Buzz van will use Nvidia technology for driver-assist systems. Nvidia and VW also created a three-way with Aurora, a renowned team of autonomous engineers formerly from Google, Tesla, and Uber to develop Level 4 and Level 5 self-driving hardware.
Nvidia, German Tier 1 supplier ZF, and Chinese search giant Baidu are also creating a production-ready AI autonomous vehicle platform designed for China, the world's largest automotive market. The collaboration is based on the new Nvidia Drive Xavier platform, ZF's new ProAI car computer, and Baidu's Apollo platform.
Baidu Moves at China Speed
Probably the only auto tech company that has more collaborators than Nvidia is Baidu, which has gathered more than 90 partners to help develop its Apollo self-driving platform. At CES, Baidu announced an Apollo 2.0 platform that will help the company develop self-driving cars at what the company calls "China Speed" and that it has partnered with four Chinese automakers to bring L4 autonomy to production vehicles in the next three years.
Baidu also announced new partnerships with Microsoft to leverage the software giant's Azure cloud services in markets outside of China and with Udacity to launch autonomous driving online courses designed to help train the next generation of autonomous engineers and developers. Finally, Baidu announced it had pulled off the near impossible: the support of four highly competitive computing platforms from Intel, Nvidia, NXP, and Renesas for Apollo in 2018.
Here Is Everywhere
At CES 2017, digital mapping company Here connected with automakers and tech giants such as Intel, BMW, Mobileye, Pioneer, and Nvidia. At CES this year, Here was seemingly everywhere and with everybody. Just before CES, competing German Tier 1 giants Bosch and Continental announced each had acquired a 5 percent stake in Here and would use its maps for self-driving development, among other things. Here Mobility was also unveiled at CES. It aggregates and supplies white-label transportation services ranging from limos and Ubers to public transit ticketing for the travel industry and any business that moves people. Finally, Here unveiled a concept passenger app for Virgin Hyperloop One. The app lets you not only book an ersatz ride on the 700-mph vacuum tube transport but also includes information on public transit schedules and routes in more than 1,300 cities for a much slower but at present much more realistic ride.
But like Las Vegas itself, CES is a place where illusion often trumps reality. Some of what happens in Vegas during CES will stay in Vegas, and some of it you'll see in cars soon, possibly by the end of the year—although I wouldn't lay a big bet on it.