LAS VEGAS—Once again, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) we saw the marriage between cutting-edge tech, electrification, and autonomy coming to the forefront in Las Vegas, with nearly all the cars debuted and supplier innovations announced having aspects of all three.
The timetable is still very much undecided, though. At one high-end German company making autonomous systems, I asked when Level Four systems—hands-off in all but a few situations—might be on the road. “One to two years,” said the executive. Knowing this was wildly optimistic, I asked for clarification. Other execs were consulted and English translations checked. “It will be Level Four only off public roads,” was the conclusion. That’s more like it.
Since a spate of very public accidents, Bosch pointed out at its press conference, public confidence in self-driving cars has actually slipped. And artificial intelligence (AI) is usually the villain in Hollywood epics. “But AI isn’t science fiction anymore,” said Bosch Chief Technology Officer Michael Bolle. “It’s an integral part of daily life. By mid-decade, all products will either have AI or be manufactured with its help.” Far from putting people out of work, he said AI would lead to a net gain of 60 million jobs by 2022.
Making autonomous cars 90 percent reliable is the easy part, said Ziv Binyamini, CEO and founder of an Israeli startup, Foretellix. “Waymo has traveled 11 million miles in autonomous vehicles, and most of the time they are right,” he said. “But they have to be right 99.9 percent of the time. And there are millions of different edge cases”—scenarios that might occur in self-driving situations. Foretellix tech streamlines the process of testing those scenarios. It does validation work for autonomous technology, and Binyamini said that in many cases that’s harder than developing the actual software.
Cars, even when they’re not autonomous, are increasingly connected. That’s great, except when the tech can get hacked. A couple of "white hat" hackers made history when they broke into a Jeep Cherokee remotely in 2015. It resulted in 1.4 million Jeeps being recalled. More recently, 100 Mercedes Car2Go sharing cars were stolen via a remote app hack in Chicago. The cars were eventually recovered, and 21 people charged..
In Las Vegas, I watched more white hats from a company called Upstream "break into" a car electronically. The car was in Tel Aviv and the good-guy hacker in Boston, and we (in Las Vegas) could see it all on split screens. The hacker locked and unlocked the doors, beeped the horn, and turned the engine off. Dan Sahar of Upstream (which tracks attacks for automakers) says we’ll have 775 million connected cars on the road by 2023, all with security issues.
At a press breakfast, I met with Alex Hitzinger, who has recently been appointed head of Silicon Valley and Munich-based Volkswagen Autonomy, Inc., which (collaborating with Argo) will handle self-driving technology for the entire group, including VW, Porsche, and Audi. The technology could be first commercialized on VW’s electric I.D. Bus in 2024.
Hitzinger said that Level 5—with the car autonomous under all conditions, at all times—is a “theory,” and “might never happen.” VW could partner with startups, and part of Hitzinger’s job is meeting with them and deciding if they have something worth buying. “They claim a lot,” he said, adding that many of the companies that started out saying they could build the full autonomous stack to Level 5 are now disappearing, the victims of their own hubris.
Autonomy is hard work and a big challenge, Hitzinger acknowledged. One little-known effort, he said, is reducing power consumption. Remember, these are electric cars and a big drain from the technology would dramatically reduce EV range. But the ends—including a reduction in the 1.3 million traffic fatalities annually—will justify the effort. Even Level 4 “could change the world.”
Why not just let the rest of the world fight it out on autonomy, then simply license use of the winning technology? That would be “a risky approach,” Hitzinger said.
The funny thing is that tractors have been autonomous for 30 years. I visited with John Deere, whose enormous green sprayer (with 120-foot boom) was definitely the biggest vehicle at CES. Admittedly, Dan Leibfried, director of advanced technology, told me, it’s easier to drive hands-free when there are no other vehicles on the “road” (in this case, a farmer’s field).
The new frontier is automating all the tasks that farmers have to perform while they’re driving, including spraying those crops. Where once it was one size fits all and everything got dosed equally (and sometimes twice), now the tech (including GPS allows much more specific targeting—down to the individual plant. It’s called “precision farming.”
Panasonic showed a cute little Tropos Motors electric fire truck powered by its batteries (which also go into Teslas). The trucks, which also work as ambulances and other official vehicles, have a 12.5-foot turning radius, making them perfect for urban work such as last-mile delivery and street sweeping. Panasonic batteries are also going into Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire motorcycles, and the company is developing an Underwriters Laboratory (UL) standard for electric bicycles.
Valeo has 48-volt technology and is a big electrification player in Europe. In Las Vegas, it showed its last-mile solutions—a robot box carrier via partner and French startup Twinswheel that can follow people around at a walking pace, and the Deliver4U, an autonomous electric “droid” made with a Chinese partner that can deliver up to 17 meals per trip. The Twinswheels (which have five-mile range) are already making deliveries in Paris, and will eventually come to the U.S.
Both Toyota and Hyundai are in futurist mode, with visions right out of Phillip K. Dick. Imagine a city intercut with broad highways and fast-moving traffic. Now throw it in the dustbin of history, and replace it with something much more human-scale. It’s the Woven City, and it’s actually being built—with company namesake Akio Toyoda as its driving force. The ground-up city is being built via celebrated architect Bjarke Ingels close to Japan’s Mount Fuji on 175 acres. It’s planned that 2,000 people, including Toyota employees, retirees, scientists, students, and visitors, will live there. So maybe “town” is better than city.
Ingels said to expect solar roofs on homes that blend tech wizardry and traditional Japanese designs, zero-emission autonomous vehicles (perhaps with fuel cells?), in-home robotics, and many traffic-calming parks with walking encouraged. Nature is always around the corner in the Woven City.
Hyundai wasn’t showing off the latest models, either. Instead, we were treated, via Youncho Chi, chief technology officer, to fanciful transportation concepts for the smart city of tomorrow. Unlike Toyota, however, Hyundai isn’t actually building the city. It’s concepts include an airborne electric taxi and podlike ground transporters that connect to central hubs.
The air taxis might actually happen, in partnership with Uber. These are electric vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) craft to be built by Hyundai that carry four passengers plus the pilot. They’re not autonomous, as some other proposals would have it.
The Hyundai concept is intermodal, in the sense that the taxis land on the roofs of the hubs, allowing passengers to quickly transfer to ground transportation. The issue I have is with the size of the VTOL planes, which are like conventional helicopters with dramatically large wing spans. It’s hard to imagine finding the space for their comings and goings in the modern city, where space is at a premium. Sure, they can land on the hubs but you’re gonna need a lot of hubs!
Dr. Eric Allison, who runs Uber Elevate, said that it could be taking passengers as early as 2023. He called it “multimodal aerial ride sharing.” The air taxis seemed further ahead than the pods, which (while on display in prototype form at Hyundai’s stand) are purely conceptual.
There seems to be an autonomous pod consensus forming, because multiple companies displayed them at CES, and several are now in service in “geo-fenced” (a/k/a prescribed routes) campuses and senior housing. One of my favorites is the Moox, built by a Toyota unit to showcase how adaptable the autonomous interior will be.
SangYup Lee, the head of Hyundai’s design center, said the pods could be configured as mobile ambulances, living rooms on wheels, bus-like transporters, or health spas, and the spoked hubs could likewise be oriented as clinics or gyms. “2020 is only the beginning,” Hyundai says.
Audi, which has used CES as a showcase for several autonomous cars, has perhaps had its wings clipped by VW’s new autonomous group. At the show, it’s most interesting offerings were a “mixed reality” 3-D heads-up display and some “human-centric” lighting.
Nissan, rocked by Carlos Ghosn’s flight to freedom, displayed the Ariya concept car, with all sorts of new technologies. More surprising, Sony (yes, the electronics giant) had a car, too, the Concept-S. Where Panasonic was content to display its technology in a custom Karma, Sony felt it had to make a vehicle of its own.
The electric Concept-S, with 200 kilowatts of power, is supposedly capable of 149 mph. It features driving assistance, driver monitoring, advanced camera monitoring, and over-the-air software updates.
This was the year of the full-length dashboard screen, seen on the Concept-S, Panasonic’s concept Karma and the Byton M-Byte. These screens are undoubtedly cool, but won’t achieve their full potential until drivers are freed from the tyranny of actually driving.
The lesson of CES 2020 was that the future is connected, autonomous, shared, and electric (CASE), but the holy grail—achieving Level 5—is still an elusive dream. We may not see a million robo-taxis on the road this year, as Elon Musk claimed, but we will see the first commercial cars with really useful self-driving features in a few years.