CES 2016: Smart Cars Debut Preview Future of the High Tech Automobile

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There is no better place to witness the future of the automotive industry than at CES. Held annually in Las Vegas, CES, or the Consumer Electronics Show, is the largest event in the consumer electronics industry, with over 170,000 attendees.

CES, let me stress is not a car show, it's a technology show which offers a unique venue for car brands to go beyond debuting new vehicles and instead focus on their technology offerings, since features like smartphone integration are becoming an increasingly important factor in the buying process.

Great technology can set a brand apart from its competitors, while inferior technology can doom a brand to failure. We at AxleGeeks tired our legs scouring the show floor and squeezed into uncomfortable press conference chairs to keep you informed about various car brands' newest features.

In 2016, three themes are clear: autonomous driving, electric vehicles, and connected vehicle services leveraging the Internet of Things. Almost every brand at the show demoed a partially or fully autonomous vehicle, every brand (with the notable exception of Toyota) is betting our future vehicles will be powered electrically. Brands like Ford and BMW alike are beginning to harness the power of our smartphones and the Internet of Things to keep us connected to our cars when and how we want.

Audi

Audi unveiled a new SUV concept dubbed the e-tron quattro, which packs a tremendous amount of impressive stats and innovative features to serve as an embodiment of their technical leadership in the auto industry.

For starters, it's powered by a 95 kWh battery with a 310 mile range, about that of a Tesla Model S. Next, it can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4.6 seconds, lightning fast for an SUV, largely thanks to its 0.25 drag coefficient.

Audi also spared no expense when it comes to tech features, endowing the e-tron quattro with matrix laser headlights which are comprised of tiny pixels of light rather than a single bulb, a solar panel sunroof and curved OLED cockpit displays. Finally, the e-tron quattro sports the latest in "piloted" (Audi's term for autonomous) driving technology, complete with a Mobileye 3-D video camera, ultrasonic sensors, and a laser scanner to gain a high degree of situational awareness.

All in all, Audi made it clear that they not only intend to maintain their technical leadership, they intend to keep pushing the boundaries of what's possible.

BMW

BMW appears to be diving head-first into the intersection of cars and the Internet of Things through the unveiling of their BMW Connected technology.

BMW Connected integrates the car, the smartphone, and smart home devices to create a seamless experience, all linked through what BMW calls the Open Mobility Cloud. As an example of use, your car will learn the ideal route to your office as it adapts to your driving behavior, and when you get closer to your destination, it will highlight the best parking options based on availability.

With this technology, BMW is aiming to create an end-to-end experience for its customers where the car serves as just another touch point in a larger, connected ecosystem. The question that arises, however, is how much will customers have to spend to take full advantage of a system where your car and your home are fully connected, and will they be willing to pay?

Chevrolet

Marry Barra took the keynote stage to showcase General Motor's contributions to automotive technology, and she unveiled a new contribution in the form of the Chevrolet Bolt EV.

As the brand's second all-electric offering behind the Volt, the Bolt EV will sport a 200 mile range and cost only $30,000, an impressive range to achieve at a mass-market price point. The Bolt EV will also feature the latest in infotainment and connectivity with a 10.2" touchscreen, Bluetooth LE, and custom mapping that factors in topography and weather to give drivers a highly accurate idea of their range.

Finally, the Bolt EV will be integrated with our smartphones through the MyChevrolet App which will give users battery level information, allow them to schedule servicing, and turn on the climate control system before entering the car.

Barra pointed out that as long as the Bolt EV is plugged into a charger, activating the climate control before driving will actually increase range by not drawing upon the car's battery to bring the cabin temperature to a comfortable level. To sum up, the Bolt EV embodies General Motors' bet that the future of the automobile will be electric and connected.

Ford

Ford made a number of big announcements this year, including Toyota's adoption of Ford's SmartLink software, Ford's integration with Amazon Alexa and Echo through the SYNC infotainment system, and the growth of Ford's autonomous test fleet.

First, Toyota adopting Ford's SmartLink technology — which is an open-source smartphone app interface software — marks a significant step toward standardization in how our smartphones connect to our cars. This makes it easier for app developers to integrate their services into the car since they can build one service that can be applied to multiple brands' cars rather than building a custom service for each brand.

Second, by integrating with Amazon Alexa and Echo, Ford is making a major foray into the smart home. This partnership will allow the two companies' products to communicate with each other and hand off tasks, like checking traffic conditions.

Finally, Ford is expanding its autonomous test fleet in an effort to accelerate the pace of its advancements, and there's a simple reason why: The more vehicles Ford adds to its test fleet, the more situations it can put those vehicles in and the more data it can collect and interpret to understand how to handle those situations.

Kia

Kia, now in its sixth CES appearance, hosted its first press conference this year. Kia demoed its current tech and safety feature offerings, branded as the Advanced Driver Assist System (ADAS), as well as describing its plan for rolling out fully autonomous vehicles through its Drive Wise sub-brand.

Kia's current offerings, through ADAS, include Blind Spot Detection, Lane Departure Warning and Autonomous Emergency Braking. In the future, they plan to roll out Drive Wise's autonomous technology across more models, which will include features like Highway Autonomous Driving, Traffic Jam Assist and Autonomous Valet Parking.

Kia is committed to bringing advanced safety features into the mass-market, but they still have a long way to go. A lot of ADAS features are not standard yet and come with a hefty markup, but the message is clear: Kia wants to be a leader in car buyer's minds. The brand has come a very long way in the last few years, so credit is certainly due.

Mercedes-Benz

Much like BMW, Mercedes-Benz also seems to be betting that the automotive future will revolve around a connected ecosystem of services, with the car functioning as simply another device. And, as a luxury brand, it certainly makes sense that Mercedes-Benz would want to create experiences rather than just products.

Through the Mercedes Me system, drivers will be able to create service appointments, call roadside assistance, access their lease and financing information, and change vehicle settings, all through their smartphones.

The brand also announced that its E-Class sedan is the first standard-production vehicle to be granted an autonomous testing license in Nevada. What's important to note is that this E-Class does not require extra sensors on the outside of the vehicle in order to conduct tests, demonstrating how much the technology has been miniaturized in the last few years.

Toyota

Toyota made its commitment to pushing the envelope of autonomous driving clear in its press conference at CES. Bob Carter, the SVP of Automotive Operations, described how our relationship to cars has changed drastically even over the last few years.

Instead of cars solely responding to human input, Carter described how they are now beginning to adapt to, and anticipate, our environment. Next, Dr. Gill Pratt, the CEO of the newly formed Toyota Research Institute and the former program manager of the DARPA autonomous driving challenge, took the stage to outline how the institute will spend its $1 billion investment from Toyota.

He spoke to four initial mandates that will guide his team's research over the coming years: Build cars that are incapable of causing a crash, increase access to cars for those who otherwise cannot drive, translate Toyota's experience in outdoor mobility to indoor mobility, and accelerate scientific progress in the field of materials science by applying artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies.

By demonstrating a high level of commitment to furthering autonomous driving and mobility technologies as well as committing to sharing their findings, Toyota is sending a message to the car industry at large that they aim to be a standard bearer as these technologies increasingly find their way to the market. By establishing offices within a 10-minute bike ride to both Stanford and MIT, the two leading universities with respect to artificial intelligence and robotics research, Toyota aims to foster a collaborative relationship with these institutions, showing an understanding that they need top-tier talent to achieve their ambitious goals.

Volkswagen

Dr. Herbert Diess, CEO of Volkswagen Passenger Cars, gave the concluding keynote presentation on press day. The elephant in the room, of course, was the emissions scandal affecting 11 million of Volkswagen's diesel-powered vehicles in the U.S. and Europe.

To Diess' credit, he started off the presentation by almost immediately acknowledging the situation, apologizing, detailing what steps the company would take to fix the issue, and ensured that it would never happen again. He then outlined the future of VW's technology offerings by unveiling two new vehicles: the e-Golf Touch and the BUDD-e concept van.

The e-Golf Touch demonstrated VW's advancements in electric powertrain technology and its rethinking of the infotainment interface through the use of voice commands and gesture controls. The BUDD-e, presented as a successor to the classic VW Bus, was designed to showcase VW's "next big step" in automotive technology by challenging the status quo of its vehicle lineup. The BUDD-e is fully electric, with the battery pack spanning the floor of the car, much like a Tesla Model S, to lower the center of gravity and create more cabin room. Next, the dashboard is entirely screen-based, allowing for a completely custom user experience. Finally, Diess showcased how the BUDD-e will be an integral part of the smart home of the future, as it communicates with home appliances to lower energy use, for instance. To wrap up the presentation, Diess looked even further ahead to a future involving fully autonomous vehicles by announcing a strategic partnership with Mobileye, a key supplier for sensors and software relating to autonomous vehicles, signaling VW's commitment to bringing such technologies to the mass-market.

From our perspective, the e-Golf Touch voice and gesture recognition technologies felt like gimmicks. It's hard to imagine VW creating a significantly better voice-control experience than anyone has in the past; and with gesture control, it seems like there will be a steep learning curve that will keep people from getting full use out of it.

The infotainment system in the BUDD-e felt equally unintuitive. While it's great to have some degree of flexibility when it comes to what information you see on your infotainment screen, too much optionality is a quick way to scare people away. Finally, a lot of smart home integrations were discussed where the BUDD-e played an important role as a mobile hub of sorts for controlling appliances and home security systems, but why wouldn't VW and other automakers simply favor Google's Android Auto and Apple's CarPlay when it comes to integrating software from outside sources? Software is not in VW's wheelhouse, but it does happen to be in Google and Apple's.

CES Impression Overall

CES 2016 provided the perfect venue for car brands to show off their latest technological developments, especially in the areas of autonomous driving, electrification and connected vehicle services. After reviewing each brand's offerings, it is clear that car brands are, for the most part, taking very similar approaches to these three problems, which begs the question: Will the future entail competition or cooperation?

In the competitive future, each brand would create their own technologies that would be difficult to apply to other brands, potentially slowing the evolution of fully autonomous, interconnected vehicles for society as a whole. In a cooperative future, brands would share solutions with each other and agree on a set of standards, potentially quickening the pace of progress. Will brand-specific ecosystems resonate with consumers? Only time will tell. Branding is of immense importance to the auto industry, so perhaps technology is simply their new battleground.

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