BIG IDEAS AND BS AT CES

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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.

SEP­A­RAT­ING THE VAPORWARE FROM

THE SOFT­WARE AND HARD­WARE YOU’LL LIKELY SEE IN YOUR NEXT NEW CAR

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. 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 the 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 the 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 ride­hail­ing ser­vice Didi, along with Mazda, which will col­lab­o­rate on ve­hi­cle plan­ning and devel­op­ment.

GET A FLEET OF E-PAL­ETTES TO­GETHER, AND YOU COULD HAVE A POP-UP CRAFT FAIR, FES­TI­VAL, OR CON­CERT AL­MOST ANY­WHERE.

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.

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 mo­bil­ity ser­vices, and it 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 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 brickand-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.

NIS­SAN READS A DRIVER’S MIND

Nis­san rolled out one of the more bizarre CES in­no­va­tions: brain-to-ve­hi­cle (B2V) tech­nol­ogy. It uses elec­troen­cephalog­ra­phy (EEG) to mea­sure brain waves 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 blindspot 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 self­driv­ing 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 Ven­tures 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 A-Class 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, al­l­elec­tric, 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-kWhr bat­tery pack is just un­der 250 miles, and a dual­mo­tor 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 49inch 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.

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. AM

BUT­TONS? THE BYTON CON­CEPT DON’T NEED NO STINK­ING BUT­TONS. FUNC­TIONS ARE CON­TROLLED BY HAND GES­TURES WITH WHAT THE COM­PANY

CALLS AIR TOUCH SEN­SORS.

BY DOUG NEW­COMB

PAL­ETTE PARTY

Toy­ota’s e-Pal­ette au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles are de­signed to de­liver peo­ple, pack­ages, pizza, and more to your doorstep.

Ford CEO Jim Hack­ett laid out a vi­sion of the fu­ture: au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles and trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture con­nected to make streets safer and cities bet­ter places for pedes­tri­ans. Nis­san showed brain-to-ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy that taps into brain­waves via an elec­trode-adorned cap that reads a driver’s mind so the car can ap­ply the brakes just as the driver starts to think about it.

At side-by-side booths, Hyundai and Kia un­veiled fu­ture alt-fuel of­fer­ings: the Nexo hy­dro­gen fuel cell ve­hi­cle, on sale later this year, and the Niro EV con­cept, sched­uled to launch in 2020.

The Byton con­cept EV will have a range of about

250 miles and an es­ti­mated base price of $45,000. In­side is a dashspan­ning screen, and hid­den door han­dles out­side are ac­cessed via fa­cial recog­ni­tion.

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