LAS VEGAS – It was clear months ago that mobility was going to be big at the 2019 CES technology exhibition. Still, the sheer number of automotive companies that took up space in the massive North Hall and the Central Plaza at the Las Vegas Convention Center came as a surprise.
Automotive seemed to be everywhere at the annual gathering. Audi’s huge exhibition stand formed the center of a veritable auto show that also featured the likes of Ford, Daimler, Nissan, FCA, Hyundai, Kia, Byton as well as the world’s top automotive suppliers.
They were flanked by IT service providers and consumer electronics companies, all of which seemed intent on proving that their expertise can play a decisive role in defining the cars of tomorrow.
Today’s new car models are connected and have a dazzling array of digital functions inside. Tomorrow’s cars will drive themselves and interiors will turn into entertainment, productivity and relaxation capsules. Whether or not that vision becomes reality is subject to debate. And, though there were concepts galore at this year’s CES, the timetable for implementation is far from certain.
Here then are our 10 automotive takeaways from CES 2019:
- People movers. There seems to be broad agreement in the industry that autonomy will come first to a new breed of
urban electric vehicles known as people movers. They will be programmed to drive pre-defined routes, run constantly and offer a convenient way for urban travelers to get from A to B. People movers featured prominently on many stands across the entire CES exhibition.
- Multi-purpose. Toyota pioneered the concept with its e-Palette last year, but at this year’s CES many other companies embraced the idea that four-wheel electric vehicles should be designed in such a way that they can do different things. That means a people mover can also be built to be a vegetable stand or an urban delivery vehicle.
- Complexity. The automotive ecosystem was always complicated, says Faurecia CEO Patrick Koller. But now it has become complex as well. The traditional supply chain involved automakers dictating terms to tier 1 suppliers who subsequently recruited a host of tier 2 component makers. That relatively simple mode of operation is no more. In its place there is a bewildering array of companies that make claims to some part of the rapidly changing automotive value chain. That ecosystem was on display in Las Vegas this year.
- Autonomous. Driverless-car concepts and their key enabling technologies were everywhere at this year’s CES. But there continues to be uncertainty over the timetable for implementation. The likes of Waymo, Aptiv, Veoneer, Valeo and others offered autonomous test drives in Las Vegas. But, in practice, most of the production-ready technologies being introduced in current model generations merely enable level 2 or level 2+ automation. Hence, level 3 seems far away and no-one dared make predictions for level 4, when human intervention will no longer be required.
- Services. The auto industry is getting ready for a market that will see fewer traditional car sales. To balance out potential revenues losses, both automakers and suppliers are developing platforms for new digital services. Automaker executives talked at CES about car sharing, ride-hailing and the potential gains from selling digital add-on functionality to car owners. Suppliers focused on new technologies such as fleet management, predictive maintenance and the commercialization of data derived from connected components and systems.
- Power. The availability of greatly increased computing power in and around the car opens up whole new areas of opportunity, especially in the field of artificial intelligence. Supplier ZF, for example, unveiled an automotive supercomputer capable of performing up to 600 trillion calculations a second. In discussions with automotive executives at CES, it was clear that the industry now feels today’s chip technology provides a sufficient computing base upon which to build tomorrow’s mobility systems.
- Maturity. Still, automotive executives broadly agreed that there are several technology areas where more progress needs to be made on the road to new mobility. One is artificial intelligence, which they said is a key focus area for automotive companies’ R&D efforts. AI is still a work in progress. Ralf Lenninger, Continental’s veteran senior executive in charge of planning future strategy, said more work needs to be done on updating “relatively old” AI algorithms and building the data libraries needed to make tomorrow’s data analysis really robust. The other area where more progress needs to be made is over-the-air updates, which are seen as crucial to turn the car into a consumer-friendly mobile part of the Internet of Things. OTA is coming, but it remains unclear when.
- Cost. Almost all connected-car technologies rely on sensor data and many executives, when asked about obstacles to development, said lidar continues to be too expensive. Continental’s Lenninger also said the cost of high-performance computing power will still have to come down further.
- Google and Amazon.The voice assistants built by the two internet giants were everywhere at this year’s Las Vegas tech show. And there were few automotive systems on display that didn’t rely on the Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa to make operating devices and systems smoother and equip them with a degree of artificial intelligence. Nakul Duggal, vice president of product management at Qualcomm said Amazon’s natural language processing technology allowed the chipmaker to offer “an exclusive, interactive in-car experience for both the drivers and passengers to leverage the latest innovations in a natural, intuitive way.”
- Consumer electronics. Technologies from consumer industries have been making their way into the automotive sector for years. The trend has been one of the reasons the auto industry is getting bigger and bigger at CES. This year, the convergence of the two industry sectors was even more pronounced with many consumer electronics companies showing connected cars, improved infotainment and innovative automotive technologies.
-By Arjen Bongard