Editor’s note: Tech 50+ Editor-At-Large John R. Quain is also a long time automotive writer for the New York Times, so when he talks cars, we listen. We’re pleased to publish his two-part take on the car tech that’s become an increasing focus at what used to be named the Consumer Electronics Show, now called just CES.
If there was a single message out of the CES 2018 electronics show, it was that self-driving cars are coming, and they are coming whether we like it or not. Once the dominion of TVs and DVD players, in less than half a decade automotive technology has come to dominate the annual CES electronics trade show in Las Vegas. From new sensors for advanced safety systems to full-on autonomous vehicles, car tech has graduated from thumping trunk-bound sub-woofers to onboard computer systems that promise to reshape our society. Here’s the best of what was presented at this year’s show:
Best Self-Driving Car Platform: Aptiv
Of the more than half a dozen self-driving car platforms running on city streets during the show, Aptiv’s (formally a part of Delphi) was the smoothest and most confidence inspiring system. It was able to handle busy city streets as well was as tricky maneuvers like merging onto a highway or properly navigating unpredictable pedestrian traffic. Currently demonstrated in prototype Lyft BMWs, the ride-hailing service hopes to continue testing in Las Vegas but was cagey about future test markets.
Best RoboCab: Navya Autonom Cab
In the constantly shifting research and development phase of autonomous vehicles, the prevailing wisdom about how self-driving vehicles should be introduced is changing almost every week. There is a growing body of research, however, that indicates that the best way to introduce autonomy on the road may be via robotic taxis, not just a car jury-rigged with bulging LiDAR, but a designed-from-the-ground-up robocab. Furthest along in this area is Navya, whose Autonom Cab was running on a predetermined route in downtown Las Vegas during CES. Using a smartphone app, riders can call the cab, open and close doors, and initiate a trip (remember, there’s no driver, so you have to start the trip). The EV has a top speed of 50 mph (although it’s currently running considerably more slowly) and seats six comfortably. Onboard entertainment (movies, music, and shopping) is provided via a touchscreen. Priced at over $300,000, the robotaxi’s ride is still a little bumpy, but with each run, it continues to shake out the bugs. Is it real? Yes, but safety certification issues still have to be addressed with regulatory agencies. In the meantime, additional pilot programs are planned for a few cities around the world.
Best Car Interface: Nuance Just Talk
Several companies at CES, including Bosch and Mercedes-Benz, showed in-car voice recognition systems that no longer require a button push to initiate commands. Instead, like Amazon’s insanely popular Alexa, they use a wake-up word. Nuance took such convenience one step further: All you have to do is ask the car a question. No wake-up word required. Monitoring systems follow the driver- such as where she is looking and what driving tasks she’s engaged in – and understand context so that the car knows when it’s being spoken to. Doubtless, there’s more work to be done in order to make it foolproof, but Just Talk is a big improvement on simple, fixed-lexicon systems.
Most Fun EV: Arcimoto
Yes, there have been plenty of attempts to bring a three-wheeled electric car to market, but the Arcimoto may be the first to succeed by taking a different tack. It doesn’t pretend to be a car and instead embraces its motorcycle roots. The open cockpit vehicle seats two (driver and passenger) in tandem, with a roll-cage overhead. Spinning through the neon-studded nighttime traffic of Las Vegas with Mark Frohnmayer, the company’s founder, was, well, a blast. The Arcimoto is stable and quiet (thanks to two electric motors up front), and because of its svelte design, it slips in between rows of bumper-to-bumper traffic with ease. The Arcimoto has a range of 70 miles on a single charge and a starting price of just under $12,000. The company says it has already delivered its first two models to customers.
Best Visionary Car of the Future: Byton
Byton doesn’t want its cars to be the ultimate driving experience. It wants its cars to be the ultimate experience, period. The electric Byton concept car re-imagines the in-car experience for a future when drivers can turn over control of the driving tasks to onboard computers. It has multiple wireless online connections, facial recognition cameras, gesture controls, front seats that swivel backward, several independent displays, and a Brobdingnagian 49-inch dashboard screen to track social-networking connections, entertainment options, and even personal health information. (It will also display speed and other driving details, by the way.) Byton plans to introduce its first vehicle for the Chinese market in 2019 starting at $45,000. It will be a 250-mile, semi-autonomous compact SUV that can drive on its own only under certain circumstances (with driver monitoring). In the future, Byton is planning a software upgrade to make it fully autonomous.
In our next piece, a look at more beauty and lots of brains in the cars of CES 2018