Typically, the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas is a feeding frenzy of big TVs, weird gadgets, and superfluous technology, but in recent years it’s become something else, too: a car show. The auto industry, perhaps preferring the warm glow of the tech press, has been using CES to showcase its big, futuristic ideas about autonomy, electrification, and infotainment. Later this month comes the overshadowed Detroit Auto Show, where automakers pivot to the stuff that people can buy, and what makes car companies money: trucks, SUVs, minivans, and luxury sedans.
We’ve been harping on the fact that CES is a car show for years now. And this year is no different, with a whole swarm of high-tech, tricked-out vehicles — and even a few aircraft — descending on Sin City this week for the gawking and amusement of all.
Here’s a glance of all the things on four wheels, three wheels, two wings, and a flurry of rotors that we’re excited to see:
CES and electric cars are a natural fit. Big automakers like to show off their commitment to battery and plug-in hybrid technology to help offset the gas-guzzling reality we’re living in. And smaller, Tesla-aspiring startups see it as their opportunity to make a splash in the big kid pool.
The name on the lips of many this year is Byton, an electric vehicle startup that doesn’t want to be seen as just another electric vehicle startup. The Chinese company was founded by the former head of the BMW i8 program Carsten Breitfeld and the former managing director of Infiniti China Daniel Kirchert, and in recent months it’s been siphoning a ton of talent from the flailing Faraday Future.
don’t be distracted by the light show
The concept Byton suggests a fully connected SUV with tons of consumer-friendly tech, including (what else) a forest of touchscreens and weird features like the ability to monitor your vital signs. Both front-wheel and all-wheel drive will be available, with a 150-kilowatt motor up front and a 200kW motor in the rear. The car will have two battery options, a 71kWh “entry pack” that will offer around 200 miles of range, and a 95kWh “extended pack,” which will be good for around 310 miles. The base model is projected to start at $45,000.
Speaking of Faraday Future, the struggling EV company is planning on showing something off at CES this year, too. No one knows what’s in the works, but it likely won’t be another splashy, EDM-heavy dog-and-pony show like it pulled off last year (with disastrous results). If anything, this is a chance for FF to hit the reset button and try to present a more modest plan for production of its flagship FF91 vehicle. Don’t hold your breath.
Many of the big automakers will have EV concepts to show off as well. South Korea’s Kia Motors is planning on showing off a new electric car with “never-seen-before human-machine interface” and an advanced new “motion graphic lighting system.”
But don’t be distracted by the light show. Advances in battery tech to improve charging time and range will be the real metric to watch at CES. And ultimately they’ll be the only thing that matters to consumers.
Autono-you, autonomy, autono-everything we see
If you’re into self-driving cars, then CES is the place for you. There will be over a dozen autonomous vehicles to sample from while in Las Vegas — a veritable self-driving smorgasbord. There are some big names, like Ford and Lyft, but most are small startups and automotive suppliers you’ve never heard of (ZF, Autoliv, Valeo, Torc, etc). Given the lead time to develop new vehicles, companies need to make decisions now about what they are going to do for first-generation AVs. Figuring out how to turn the tech into a viable business will be crucial.
Some of these cars will be penned in on parking lots, but others will be out in the wild, driving among us. Lyft is teaming up with Delphi spinoff Aptiv to offer free autonomous robo-taxi rides to those brave enough to hail one. (A safety driver and another engineer will be in the car to take over if anything goes awry, so it’s not technically “driverless.”)
Figuring out how to turn the tech into a viable business will be crucial
Las Vegas will serve as the final stop on Mercedes’ “Intelligent World Drive,” a global test drive of autonomous technology on a modified S-Class sedan that has spanned five different continents. It should be interesting to see how this globe-trotting adventure has helped inform the Stuttgart-based automaker’s approach to autonomy.
Speaking of Mercedes, the automaker’s Smart Vision EQ fortwo Concept will be on display, and color us excited to hop inside this steering wheel-less and pedal-less tiny wonder for a ride and drive.
Ford will show off its autonomous pizza delivery car that it’s been operating in a limited experiment in Michigan. Hopefully that means we’ll get an update on Ford’s self-driving program from Ford CEO Jim Hackett when he delivers his keynote address on Tuesday, January 9th.
France’s Navya will be offering trips in not one, but two flavors of autonomous vehicle: a driverless, eight-passenger shuttle bus on a 0.6-mile loop, and a minivan called the “Autonom Cab” that will be picking up riders from the convention center’s Gold Lot. Navya’s shuttle service, which is operated by French private transportation company Keolis, got off to an embarrassing start last November when it promptly got into an accident with a human driver. Let’s hope they’ve fixed any bugs in time for CES.
Cars with “brains”
Cars that drive themselves need to have cameras and sensors to “see” their surroundings, but more importantly, they need powerful computer “brains” to process millions of bits of data at split-second speeds.
The big players in the chip sector will be showing off their latest in-vehicle technology. Two of the biggest names, Intel and Nvidia, will have new processors to show off. A rivalry is brewing between the two companies, with both promising to build computers powerful enough to enable “full autonomy” with no steering wheel or pedals needed. Expect a lot of pie-in-the-sky promises about the future of self-driving.
Other companies are going a different route entirely. Nissan says it will demonstrate something it’s calling “brain-to-vehicle” interface (pictured above), in which you can sit in a simulator, pop on a skull cap covered in electrodes, and see what happens when you let your brain do the driving. Mind-boggling stuff.
Cars are basically just smartphones on wheels, and since a smartphone is only good as its screen, it will be important to pay attention to announcements having to do with that dreaded portmanteau: infotainment.
Mercedes-Benz, which is trying to position itself as a leader in reimagining the inside of the cars, is debuting its new user experience at CES. The Stuttgart-based automaker will show an AI-based technology and an “intuitive” operating system so as to “usher in a new era of infotainment.”
But rather than show off its newest tech in its top-of-the-line luxury line, Mercedes-Benz User Experience will debut as the standard system in the brand’s next-gen compact offerings of hatchbacks and sedans.
Beware the buzzwords
We’re girding ourselves for the normal onslaught of buzzwords and meaningless jargon. “Urban mobility,” “smart cities,” “mobility as a service,” “connectivity,” “the future of mobility,” and on and on until your ears bleed and your eyes roll back in your head. These words will pour from the mouths of car executives as they stride across glowing stages gesturing to absurd-looking concepts. We sit through it so you don’t have to.
Keep in mind this important and salient fact: all these men (and they’re almost all men) are scared to death. Their industry is undergoing a tectonic shift right now. Autonomy and electrification present enormous challenges that car companies aren’t really built to tackle. There’s a reason so many are trying to rebrand as tech companies or robotics startups or camera companies. Being just a car company doesn’t cut it anymore.
After a run of record sales, the auto industry declined last year for the first time since the Great Recession. Americans are still buying a lot of cars, but not the types we see displayed at CES. This is very much an aspirational future, not a guaranteed one.
Come fly with me
There will be a healthy crop of weird flying things claiming to be “flying cars.” Of course, they aren’t that, but instead should be thought of as, I don’t know, up-jumped drones? Sad helicopters? Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) is all the rage in Silicon Valley, so don’t be surprised if we see a few car and / or tech companies try to burnish their credentials by trotting out some multi-rotor thingamajig with an electric motor and little chance of becoming a viable mode of transportation.
That isn’t to say we’re not excited to see what flies and what doesn’t. It can’t all be terrestrial methods of travel, especially as our surface streets become more and more crowded. Why not take to the clouds? Let’s just be realistic about where this is headed, while our feet are still planted firmly on the ground.