You could be excused if you’d wandered into the CES 2016 in Las Vegas and momentarily thought you had stumbled into an auto show.
By all accounts, this year’s CES has been all about the biggest consumer purchase that most people make —the automobile. That should be no surprise now that cars are becoming more like digital devices at multiple levels.
This year there are three broad categories of electric and digital automotive technologies making their appearance at CES. The first group is a continuation of what’s been seen for the past few years—autonomous cars.
They’ve been at CES before, at the big CeBIT technology show in Germany, and at many of the big auto shows from Geneva to Paris to New York. This year at CES, automotive autonomy is bigger than ever based on the number of manufacturers making announcements and displaying technology.
Also bigger than ever are electric vehicles. While electric cars have been around since the earliest days of the auto industry, new electric cars that can go long distances in comfort, and can be recharged quickly and easily enough to be practical are showing up in greater numbers.
Now manufacturers are showing cars that can do the same thing, including a new version of the Volkswagen Microbus called BUDD-e that can drive 300 miles on a single charge.
Gesture control is already here in a few cars, notably the BMW 7-series, but a number of cars are planning to deliver gesture control in the near term. But there’s a lot more going on in automotive user interfaces than just gestures. Bosch is showing haptic touch screens that provide the feel of physical buttons on a touch screen.
New user interfaces could show up in nearly any car as features such as gesture control and haptic screens catch on. The idea behind gesture control is that the car’s control system would watch an area near one of your hands, and when you made specific gestures in that area, the car would know what you want it to do.
A specific wave might turn the radio volume up while another would turn on voice control so you could make a phone call.
Gesture controls, and haptic screens for that matter, are intended to make the car more intuitive to use. The number of features and related controls available in today’s cars already add a level of complexity that it’s hard for drivers to keep their focus on driving.
I’m still trying to imagine how one would control gestures on a bumpy road. When I tried out a gesture control system at the Volkswagen stand at CeBIT two years ago, I found it to still be a work in progress. Still, gesture control of some type seems to be a certainty in the near future as does the continued growth of electric vehicles.
Autonomous Cars, Electric Vehicles Turn CES Into an Auto Show
While many people think of autonomous cars as something they might see in the far future, the reality is that autonomous capabilities are quietly making their way into vehicles that are available now.
In fact, I was able to drive an upscale Acura two years ago that would stay in its lane in heavy traffic, speed up and slow down according to what the car in front of it was doing. The car was able to stop using its adaptive cruise control if the car’s onboard radar detected a stationary object in the way.
These days many cars are arriving on dealers’ lots with similar features and greater autonomy is showing up every year. Already, Tesla owners are able to download software for their cars that makes them near-autonomous vehicles. Full autonomy is already being demonstrated. Autonomous cars are already traveling on an interstate highway near my office on a regular basis. There was even an autonomous version of the BMW i3 electric car on display at CES.
You can buy a car today from any of several manufacturers, including Ford, BMW and Mercedes that can park itself, maintain a safe distance from the cars ahead, automatically brake to avoid collisions and perform a number of other automated functions such as changing lanes to avoid traffic.
The biggest leap that’s really needed is tying the car’s navigation system into an autonomous control system and that’s already been done experimentally.
You also can buy an electric car from most car makers. Each of the big U.S. manufacturers has at least one model. So do the big European and Asian manufacturers besides smaller car makers such as Tesla.
Until now, those cars, with the exception of Tesla, were limited to short ranges, or they also had a small gasoline engine to constantly charge the batteries. Now, electric-only vehicles are arriving or are on the drawing boards that bring long ranges and easy operations into the mainstream.
In addition to Volkswagen, BMW is demonstrating electric cars with longer ranges. Fiat is showing a fuel-cell powered car and Toyota is showing hydrogen powered cars that, in some cases, use fuel cells. And, of course, Tesla is reportedly developing a version of its cars that is more affordable by people of modest means.
A new automobile company, Faraday Future, is showing its futuristic FFZero1 concept car that some assert looks something like the Batmobile of 1960s television fame. However, Faraday Future is really showing a platform that can be used for a variety of car designs including a sports car, sedan, SUV or a pickup truck.
As for autonomous cars, they are already here in a limited form, but totally autonomous cars will require highway designs and traffic laws to catch up. But that may not be as far off as you may think. GM has already invested $500 million in the Lyft car sharing service to develop an automated, on demand, car service.
With that kind of money, autonomous taxi services probably aren’t that far away.