By David Undercoffler, January 7, 2014
Forget 80-inch televisions or Wi-Fi-connected blenders. At the 2015
Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it's the automakers who are
dominating the conversation.
Brands like Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW
and Toyota used the annual show — expected to draw around 160,000 people
this week — to highlight the rapidly approaching self-driving car, as
well as in-car apps and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
"CES is a
place where automakers can reach an entire new audience of consumers who
are looking for what's next," said Costantine Samaras, a professor of
engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. "Even if it's just at the
concept level, there's a lot of spillover for technology up and down an
automaker's supply chain."
concept car was exactly what Mercedes-Benz brought to this year's
event. Mercedes Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche on Monday unveiled a
radical self-driving concept dubbed the F 015 Luxury in Motion.
low-slung oddity highlights what Mercedes thinks its cars could look
like — and how they could function — just 15 years in the future. The
large sedan holds four people, who can sit facing one another in
lounge-style seating while the car drives itself.
"Think about it:
Most cool gadgets here at CES actually consume your time," Zetsche
said. "This car actually gives you more time and more space."
— which used last year's CES to show off a self-driving prototype —
used this year's show to talk hydrogen. The company announced that 5,600
of its patents related to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and refueling
stations will be free to any competitor that wants to use them.
first-generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, launched between 2015 and
2020, will be critical, requiring a concerted effort and unconventional
collaboration," Toyota Senior Vice President Bob Carter said. Toyota
will bring the hydrogen-powered Mirai sedan to the U.S. market in
Other automakers used CES to offer a look at the near future of autonomous cars.
was the first automaker to get a permit from the state of California to
test self-driving cars on public roads in 2014. Like an eager
16-year-old, the automaker used this new permit to drive autonomously
from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas in a prototype A7.
law, the car drove the 560-mile journey with a specially licensed person
in the driver and passenger seats. Despite driving at night and in
heavy rain at speeds up to 70 mph on public roads, the trip was
trouble-free, Audi said.
and other automakers — especially the high-dollar luxury brands —
already sell cars that have basic self-driving functions built in. Cars
today can parallel-park themselves, brake automatically before a
collision, and stay inside a lane and a set distance behind other cars
on the freeway.
"The technology of the self-driving car is rapidly
moving forward," Zetsche said. "And customers gain trust based on their
positive experience with assistance systems."
BMW showed off a
self-parking feature on a concept version of its tidy i3 electric car:
four laser systems that scan 360 degrees around the car to find a space,
locking itself closed once it has parked itself.
the car via a smart watch for pickup, and the i3 meets the driver at the
entrance of the parking garage, ready to go. The company hopes for such
a feature by 2020.
automakers in particular will face a challenge as self-driving cars
become mainstream. When they do, automakers and analysts alike expect
fewer traffic jams, safety improvements and reduced greenhouse gases.
self-driving cars are likely to begin a transition from a product owned
by an individual to an on-demand, subscription-based service.
you get to the self-driving car, you get this issue with a luxury brand
like Mercedes or BMW's 'ultimate driving machine,'" said Egil
Juliussen, director of research for autonomous vehicles at IHS
Automotive. "How do you translate that? They still want to sell the car
as a product, not a service."
This is why Mercedes CEO Zetsche
made it clear that his company expects to become an indispensable luxury
when cars are self-driving. "The autonomous car grants access to the
single most important luxury good of the 21st century: private space and
quality time," Zetsche said.
not just high-dollar automakers with an eye on self-driving cars.
During his keynote address Tuesday, Ford CEO Mark Fields made it clear
that an autonomous Ford was a certainty in the future. But he said his
company would take its time and make sure that the technology was
approachable for everyone.
Technology is hardly the only hurdle
for self-driving cars. There are knotty regulatory challenges (test
vehicles are currently allowed on public roads in just four states);
data privacy issues, since these cars accumulate massive amounts of
information about how they're used and where they go; and ethical issues
like how to program a car to react when a collision is unavoidable.
in the Wild West of autonomous vehicle law and policy," said Samaras of
Carnegie Mellon University. "The danger is a 50-states strategy where
every one is different and automakers are locked into a less progressive
transportation policy traditionally moving very slowly, Samaras says
he's optimistic that automakers' rapid development of self-driving cars
will speed up policy change.
"These are surmountable challenges," he said.
meantime, is conducting 25 experiments around the globe on how
transportation is evolving with technology. Fields said there's an
on-demand, minute-by-minute car-sharing program in London; a partnership
with an organization in Africa that maintains a fleet of vehicles used
to deliver doctors and medical care to remote villages while
simultaneously mapping the area; and a cloud-based system in Atlanta
that uses sensors already on many new Fords to gather data on open
Such a discussion is exactly why Ford has been coming to CES for the last eight years, Fields said.
"For us, it's a way to showcase our innovations," he said. "We want to be viewed as part of this community."