A car that isn't a car, the internet of things, autonomous cars, augmented reality, cars with gardens and the world's fastest accelerating motorcar were just some of the new and not-so-new ideas at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, which is fast replacing Detroit as the most important American auto show.
JAN 09th 2017
A taste of motoring future at CES
On the subject of not-so-new, we particularly admired Toyota's retake on its 2001 collaboration with Sony which back then was called the Pod. This time around it is called Concept-i, but the aims if not the capabilities, are the same. Then and now, the idea is to make the technology work for the driver by interacting and learning. In fact, Concept-i looked terrific, with stark white panels and rear wheel spats.
"This is our futuristic vision of what driving a Toyota means in the year 2030," says Ian Cartabiano, chief designer of Toyota's CALTY advanced design studio. "It's a proposal for the future that incorporates technology with a soul. We don't want to make a cold, technical, dry, soulless machine."
Concept-i can determine the driver's mood and anxiety state via a variety of heart-rate, sweat and eye-movement sensors, and it learns preferences so it becomes more like a personal assistant than a robot. It's a research direction that many car makers are taking, although there are privacy issues that don't seem to be a problem at the tech-loving CES but might be in the rest of the world.
In Toyota's case, the learning software is called Yui. It's a kind of learning software/personal assistant capable of simultaneously figuring out what you want along with keeping you safe and comes in two forms: Guardian which is the earliest incarnation and requires the driver to switch it on and Chauffeur, which is effectively permanent self-driving software. Think of Clippy, Microsoft's annoying paperclip assistant meme in your car. In fact, Toyota even suggests that Yui might engage you in conversation to keep you alert just in case it needs to hand back control. It's probably better than a talking paperclip, but only just.
The car that wasn't a car had rear spats as well. Bosch's concept looked rather like an abandoned speed boat than a car. This concept was all about personalisation, using facial recognition to personalise things like seat settings, music preferences and so on. Control over the switchless dash was via gesture control (an interface increasingly popular with BMW, which perhaps explains the car's appearance on the BMW stand and touch control with haptic feedback from the screens. Bosch actually promised feedback from the gesture control, but I didn't feel a thing.
Also switchless, was Panasonic's concept car, which attempted to show what an autonomous driving future could look like. It was simultaneously classy and terrifying in a video showing a family having a game of what looked like Ludo facing away from the direction of travel while the car trundled through the Alps. Panasonic's work on embedding capacitance switching capability and lighting in resin forms looked really good, with wood, metal, and stone on top and illuminated touch controls buried in the material.
"We are not aiming at pushing people into autonomous cars," Andreas Heitmann, head of Panasonic’s European Infotainment division, "but want to show options which could be used on an autonomous car of the future."
On the same stand was Panasonic's augmented reality display, another popular theme of the show. Basically this comprises a head-up display (though Volkswagen chose to demonstrate its version of augmented reality with virtual reality goggles which make their wearer look quite bonkers) which overlays the view ahead with information about speed, sat nav instructions, hazards the system has identified. Move your head and the view moves with it. Like a lot of the technology at CES, Panasonic's version was over crammed with information and quite confusing. Based on a Renault Twizy, the driver saw through a windscreen covered with digits, arrows, warnings and coloured boxes round things the system thought risky. Basically everything looks risky from a Renault Twizy.
CES rather than the Geneva Show is the natural home for the great Swiss futurist, Frank M Rinderknecht. So Oasis, Rinspeed's 23rd concept car, was a vision of how battery-powered autonomous driving could be complete with a small garden supplied by Kostal. And why shouldn't you grow tomatoes in your car? Actually, this glassy urban car looked like fun, unlike the Pod like Google car.
Deals, deals and more deals dominated the CES headlines even though some of them are months old. Audi, BMW and Mercedes now own Nokia's old map maker, HERE which will provide the high-definition 3D maps that autonomous cars require. BMW is working with Intel the world's biggest chip maker and Israeli tech company Mobileye to build autonomous cars together by 2021. Nissan's even teamed up with Nasa to provide a kind of autonomous car help desk the car can call when it meets something it's never seen before and doesn't know how to proceed. Why all this activity? Because this nascent technology is currently subject of an intellectual property land grab with car makers, and technology and software companies staking claim to the technology platforms, the hardware and the software protocols that will determine who makes the real money out of autonomous cars.
Yet there's still a bit of Mr Toad in all of us as evinced by the Faraday Future's launch of its 1,050bhp, battery electric FF 91, which was duly shown out accelerating a Ferrari and a Bentley Bentayga. It was all hokum of course as if you do that too often you'll drain the battery so fast you'll never get home. This troubled company has had its problems with unpaid bills and executives deserting, and details on the FF 91 were scant, not even a price or delivery date. Not that similarly gnomic launches has prevented Tesla taking thousands of deposits for its vapourware concepts in the past and so it proved at CES, with Faraday claiming it had received almost 65,000 customer reservations for this not-unattractive battery-powered crossover.
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