Over 100 years of dominance by the mechanics of driving is rapidly giving way to the electronics of mobility.
One couldn’t escape the impression that automobiles “owned” this year’s CES.
The number of auto-related exhibits was unprecedented. This is the year the line between the electronics world and mobility disappeared. That seems obvious to folks who operate within the world of technology, but now it’s spilling out onto the streets.
Self-driving? Not just yet
Before we delve into vehicle autonomy, let’s look at “transition tech” that will help deal with the well over 1 billion vehicles on the world’s roads, some of which will be kept running for decades.
This roughly breaks down into three categories: infotainment, vehicle telemetry and driver assistance. Since retrofitting a vehicle to become a completely autonomous machine is almost certainly cost-prohibitive and otherwise impractical, that aspect is excluded from this discussion.
Upgrading infotainment systems
A handful of suppliers provide electronic subassemblies for the major automakers, among the largest being Bosch, Delphi and Harman, which is now becoming a subsidiary of Samsung. At CES they sported their latest wares, which included both future options for the carmakers to embed in production dashboards, and add-on or retrofit units that can upgrade a limited range of cars already in service.
One of the most important vendors to this arena isn’t a hardware company at all: SiriusXM has partnerships with many consumer electronics makers to allow just about any vehicle to enter the connected world — even airplanes. However, it is really the individual user’s mobile phone that offers the most significant improvements to the in-car experience, whether that phone is actually wired into the vehicle or not.
Telemetry gives the car true digital presence
On the way to full vehicle autonomy, it’s critical that vehicles have their own, built-in data transceiver.
This was first put forward in the analog cell service era by General Motors with their innovative OnStar system. Via a simple three-button interface built into a car’s headliner, you could call for help, ask directions, and other facilities that were not commonly available at that time.
Smartphones didn’t come along until much later. Now, in the digital telephony age, OnStar and other such systems have morphed into data telemetry services that allow the vehicle itself to send information to cloud-based processing centers. It turns out that most vehicles are bristling with onboard sensors, utilized for everything from calculating optimum fuel mixtures to achieve emissions and power output goals, to knowing when a lightweight person, like a child, is in the passenger seat, so as to not activate the air bag at full power. A handful of innovative companies now offer plug in adapters that can give individual drivers, or fleet operators, access to these data streams for any number of applications.
Drivers need help
With so many variables in the driving environment, and an increasing number of driver distractions, it makes sense that vendors would begin to address the area of active driver assistance. Solutions range from gadgets that attach to dashboards, apps for smartphones, and even gizmos that the driver wears. Eventually some of the functions provided by these will get built into cars, but more likely in the future they won’t be necessary at all, since the human driver will be absent from the guidance equation. Literally.
We’re getting trained for the day when cars take care of the driving by themselves. Almost magically in terms of when they arrived on the scene, the uptake rates in virtually every major city in the world for the likes of Uber, Didi, Lyft and many more, are staggering. It’s what we always wished for with town cars, buses and taxis — someone who isn’t rude to you shows up in a vehicle that isn’t trashed, when and where you need it, just by pushing a few buttons — and it’s truly awesome.
From a sociological standpoint, what’s most important about these is that they’re smoothing the eventual transition to on demand, driverless vehicles. Not just technologically, but psychologically. And it’s happening very quickly, but an enormous number of hurdles remain both in terms of machine learning sophistication and regulatory issues. Not to mention problems of liability, ownership, insurance, and many others that need to be solved.
Regardless, the resulting environment of advanced mobility, gradually becoming electrified and therefore leading to clean energy solutions, much quieter cities, space previously dedicated to parking freeing up, are all compelling enough for us to reach towards them.
It’ll likely be about the government and industry
To my mind, the most telling and incredible display during the entirety CES was in the Mercedes Benz exhibit. They displayed a large commercial van with internal racks, robots and onboard drones. For what?
Essentially a rolling warehouse for distribution of small items such as medicine and food for disaster victims, package delivery — even battlefield supplies. It’s worth watching their video, which reminds us that most of the truly world-changing inventions start out as things useful to governments and large corporations. Having a powerful computer in our pocket has somewhat skewed our thinking into assuming that we now only need apps to change the world. But with so much investment required to make it all work, it’s pretty likely that we’ll see robotic vehicles first in big fleets, initially with large trucks and other commercial vehicles.
What about CES? Car show or still about the electronics?
There were indeed some very neat self-piloting vehicles demonstrated at the 2017 CES. Some were concept cars that sat in booths, some were operating on small test tracks outside the halls, and even more ambitious examples were actually running around the Las Vegas streets. The mainstream press focused mostly on the hall dedicated to automotive, which is why the public impression is that it’s become a show about cars.
But the majority of the convention is still about consumer electronics, with IoT, AR/VR, phones and high end audio-video systems fully present. And a lot of companies demonstrating drones. And personal fitness trackers. Not sure all of them will appear at next year’s show…