(By Buzz Knight) As our team from Beasley Media Group gets primed for the Consumer Electronics Show 2018 in Las Vegas next week I wanted to focus the conversation regarding the automotive sector. I’ve been fortunate to make the trek a habit as the new year begins and I’m looking forward to the journey once again this year. CES is an inspiring and eye-opening experience that you won’t want to miss.
Some years ago, CES was transformed when the event began to become a centerpiece for the automotive companies. I had the opportunity to speak with Pete Bigelow the Technology and Mobility Editor for the legendary Car and Driver publication (www.caranddriver.com). Pete has a unique vantage point on what to expect at CES 2018 and he presents a fascinating preview on what we will see in Vegas next week. For those of you attending CES, Pete will be moderating a session called: “Present Day Innovations in Vehicle Tech” on January 11.
Buzz Knight: If you go back to the first year that automakers were part of CES are you amazed at the pace of change?
Pete Bigelow: The speed of innovation in the automotive realm has dramatically increased over the past four or five years, and that really reached a frenzied pace in 2017 when it seemed like there wasn’t a day or week without a major announcement regarding self-driving cars, connected technology or mobility services. In that timeframe, CES has become the epicenter for showcasing those innovations.
Five years ago at CES, automakers demonstrated that driverless cars weren’t figments of science fiction but that they were possible. Today, they’re in Las Vegas talking about partnerships and deployment of large self-driving fleets. So if you think about coming so far in four years, that’s incredible.
But if you go back further, Delphi was one of the first, if not the first, automotive companies to display at CES. That was back in the mid-1990s, and the product they showed was radar used in the development of adaptive cruise control. Today, that radar is a foundational sensor for autonomous cars. So in that respect, the pace of innovation has been both evolutionary and revolutionary.
Buzz Knight: What do you anticipate from the major companies at CES this year?
Pete Bigelow: In the automotive realm, I suspect there’s going to be a shift. I think companies have already shown off the technology and proved it’s possible to make driverless cars work, at least in geo-fenced environments. Now they’re going to talk more about partnerships and deployment plans, be that specific vehicles being tailor-made with autonomy in mind or business plans in emerging mobility sectors.
To put some more thought behind that, these driverless vehicles aren’t going to be launched in a vacuum. They’re going to be launched in urban areas to solve specific mobility needs. And this year, CES is launching a whole new Smart Cities branch of its overall show. Those two things, autonomy and smarter cities, are happening in tandem and converging to meet the needs of one another. I think we’ll see some demonstrations of how vehicles and Smart Cities can mutually benefit from each other, and Las Vegas is a prime proving ground for that sort of arrangement.
Buzz Knight: Is driver safety enough of a priority for the automotive companies?
Pete Bigelow: 37,461 Americans lost their lives in traffic crashes in 2016. That’s a 14 percent increase over a two-year span that represents the steepest climb in deaths in more than half a century. We lose an average of 102 people every day in traffic crashes. That’s insane. Given that, it’d be hard to say their efforts are adequate, especially at a time when the likes of General Motors, Takata, Honda, Fiat Chrysler, and Toyota are all still operating under the cloud of safety-related scandals from the past four or five years.
But I think looking at just the automotive companies is too narrow a scope. Our drunk-driving laws are really lax compared to some other countries, so we need lawmakers to make a serious effort to snuff out a stubborn problem. Same with distracted driving. Tech companies have the technologic capability to prevent people from using their phones from driving — phones can and should be rendered inoperable while drivers are behind the wheel.
Likewise, driver safety is too narrow a scope for looking at traffic fatalities. While deaths are rising across the entire traffic environment, it’s vulnerable road users like pedestrians, motorcyclists, and bicyclists who are seeing the worst increases in deaths over the past five years.
So the solutions need to come from highway engineers, who can ensure streets are built to accommodate both pedestrians and auto traffic, legislators, and both Silicon Valley and traditional automakers. It’s a collective problem that should get the same national headlines as the equally terrible opioid crisis, but doesn’t.
Buzz Knight: What can we expect this year with the dashboard infotainment systems?
Pete Bigelow: Over the last year, we’ve seen a lot of announcements from automakers about integrating Alexa and other voice assistants into their vehicles, and I expect that trend to continue in many ways, with voice-recognition tech gaining prominence in cars and more and more features enabled based on that.
Further, I think we’ll see automakers pairing with third parties, such as popular coffeeshop chains and national fast-food restaurants to offer in-car ordering from their infotainment systems. It’s already happening, with GM’s launch of Marketplace last month. It’s going to be interesting to see who gets creative with the wealth of data available for cars. Might an automaker offer insurance via the infotainment touchscreen, with incentives offered to customers for safe driving as determined by data streaming from the vehicle? Might drivers offer insights on their experiences with a particular vehicle straight to the carmaker via an app on the touchscreens? Those are some of the things I’ll be looking for at CES.
Buzz Knight: Does one company in your opinion rise to the top when you think of innovation?
Pete Bigelow: I think Tesla has pushed the industry in so many different ways. From enabling vehicle-performance features via over-the-air updates to introducing its new all-electric truck, I think they’re hands-down the company that comes to mind. Whether they can continue to have that sort of outsized impact while not selling cars at scale and while burning through cash, well, that remains to be seen.
Buzz Knight: Are there any interesting partnerships you see with the car companies?
Pete Bigelow: Every company competing in the new automotive space has entered into partnerships in one way or another in 2017, and I think that was the big theme for the year. I think most companies have realized they cannot entirely do this alone.
Two things come to mind on this topic that register as the most interesting. Within the last few weeks, Waymo, the company formerly known as Google’s self-driving car project, announced a partnership with Trov to supply insurance for self-driving car passengers. Earlier this year, Waymo partnered with Avis to collaborate on fleet management. Between these two partnerships, you can really see Waymo starting to put its ducks in a row, in terms of figuring out how not just to make the technology work, but how to run a business enabled by self-driving technology at scale.
The other interesting partnership angle that developed this year involved ride-hailing service Lyft. And it’s not just one partnership that caught my eye, it’s that the company seems to have implemented a strategy of making partners from every conceivable company. Lyft has partnered with Waymo, General Motors, Ford, Aptiv, nuTonomy, Drive.Ai, and Jaguar Land Rover. Given its rival’s struggles this year, Lyft can provide access to its transportation network to a number of software companies and traditional automakers alike. Seems to be well positioned to benefit most when driverless cars are ready for the mainstream.
Buzz Knight: How about a self-driving car update?
Pete Bigelow: It’s clear the race is on, and the frontrunners are starting to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Waymo is conducting driverless operations without safety drivers on public roads in the Phoenix area. I think that’s the most significant development we’ve seen in the past quarter, but also think there’s noteworthy developments with Delphi’s acquisition of nuTonomy and Ford’s hints about a purpose-built vehicle for autonomy.
At the same time, I think it’s good to look beyond the hype and remember that even with the talk about launches within the next year to three years, the first operations are going to be very small scale and restricted to certain pre-mapped areas, or run on repeated routes. The technology that underpins these cars is still expensive, and as Volvo recently found out, as it retreated on some well-documented goals, still complex. It’s going to be a while before we see driverless vehicles operating at scale.