Once the dominion of TVs and DVD players, in less than half a decade automotive technology has come to dominate the annual CES electronics trade show in Las Vegas. From new sensors for advanced safety systems to full-on autonomous vehicles, car tech has graduated from thumping trunk-bound sub-woofers to on-board computer systems that promise to reshape our society. Here's the best of what was presented at this year's show, from AdaSky, Aptiv, Arcimoto, Bosch, Byton, Fisker, Navya, Nuance, Phantom, and Raven.
Best Self-Driving Car Platform: Aptiv
Of the more than half a dozen self-driving car platforms running on city streets during the show, Aptiv's (formally a part of Delphi) was the smoothest and most confidence inspiring system. It was able to handle busy city streets as well was as tricky maneuvers like merging onto a highway or properly navigating unpredictable pedestrian traffic. Currently demonstrated in prototype Lyft BMWs, the ride hailing service hopes to continue testing in Las Vegas but was cagey about future test markets.
Best RoboCab: Navya Autonom Cab
In the constantly shifting research and development phase of autonomous vehicles, the prevailing wisdom about how self-driving vehicles should be introduced is changing almost every week. There is a growing body of research, however, that indicates that the best way to introduce autonomy on the road may be via robotic taxis--not just a car jury-rigged with bulging LiDAR, but a designed-from-the-ground-up robocab. Furthest along in this area is Navya, whose Autonom Cab was running on a predetermined route in downtown Las Vegas during CES. Using a smartphone app, riders can call the cab, open and close doors, and initiate a trip (remember, there's no driver, so you have to start the trip). The EV has a top speed of 50 mph (although it's currently running considerably more slowly) and seats six comfortably. Onboard entertainment (movies, music, and shopping) is provided via a touchscreen. Priced at over $300,000 US, the robotaxi's ride is still a little bumpy, but with each run it continues to shake out the bugs. Is it real? Yes, but safety certification issues still have to be addressed with regulatory agencies. In the meantime, additional pilot programs are planned for a few cities around the world.
Best Car Interface: Nuance Just Talk
Several companies at CES, including Bosch and Mercedes-Benz, showed in-car voice recognition systems that no longer require a button push to initiate commands. Instead, like Amazon's insanely popular Alexa, they use a wake-up word. Nuance took such convenience one step further: All you have to do is ask the car a question. No wake-up word required. Monitoring systems follow the driver--such as where she is looking and what driving tasks she's engaged in--and understand context so that the car knows when it's being spoken to. Doubtless, there's more work to be done in order to make it foolproof, but Just Talk is a big improvement on simple, fixed-lexicon systems.
Most Fun EV: Arcimoto
Yes, there have been plenty of attempts to bring a three-wheeled electric car to market, but the Arcimoto may be the first to succeed by taking a different tack. It doesn't pretend to be a car, and instead embraces its motorcycle roots. The open cockpit vehicle seats two (driver and passenger) in tandem, with a roll-cage overhead. Spinning through the neon-studded nighttime traffic of Las Vegas with Mark Frohnmayer, the company's founder, was, well, a blast. The Arcimoto is stable and quiet (thanks to two electric motors up front), and because of its svelte design, it slips in between rows of bumper-to-bumper traffic with ease. The Arcimoto has a range of 70 miles on a single charge and a starting price of just under $12,000. The company says it has already delivered its first two models to customers.
Best Visionary Car of the Future: Byton
Byton doesn't want its cars to be the ultimate driving experience. It wants its cars to be the ultimate experience, period. The electric Byton concept car re-imagines the in-car experience for a future when drivers can turn over control of the driving tasks to onboard computers. It has multiple wireless online connections, facial recognition cameras, gesture controls, front seats that swivel backward, several independent displays, and a Brobdingnagian 49-inch dashboard screen to track social-networking connections, entertainment options, and even personal health information. (It will also display speed and other driving details, by the way.) Byton plans to introduce its first vehicle for the Chinese market in 2019 starting at $45,000. It will be a 250-mile, semi-autonomous compact SUV that can drive on its own only under certain circumstances (with driver monitoring). In the future, a software upgrade to make it fully autonomous is planned.
Most Beautiful High-Tech Electric Car: Fisker EMotion
He's back! After wowing car reviewers with the original Fisker Karma (which ended up in Chinese hands after some battery and financial problems), Henrik Fisker has returned with an even sexier EV, the EMotion. The all-wheel-drive vehicle is a stunner equipped with all the gear necessary to go fully autonomous (including Quanergy's solid-state LiDAR sensors, at just $1,250 for a set of five), plus it has special low rolling resistance tires, carbon fibre throughout, a top speed of 160 mph, and duly impressive acceleration. "There's not much point, though, in going beyond 3 seconds (0 to 60 mph) because it's so hard on the car," demurred Fisker in a car-side chat. While the new Fisker EMotion is undeniably beautiful, it's what may be under the skin when it debuts that's really attractive: a solid state battery that promises roughly 2.5 times the density of current lithium ion battery technology. That could propel this sedan for 400 miles on a single charge.
Best Car Tech Development: Phantom
Even when the autonomous car future arrives, it will not be perfect. Engineers, designers, and automakers all acknowledge that while serious accidents may be avoided, there will still be situations in which a self-driving car will become, well, stuck. The question is, how to deal with those situations? Since passengers may not have the skills to take over driving tasks, some sort of remote control will be required. Phantom may have the answer. The startup has demonstrated how a remote operator using all the sensor information--including live video feeds--from an autonomous vehicle can drive a car around any potential obstacle...from hundreds of miles away. The impressive feat is even more impressive given that Phantom can do this over a standard cellular connection. So far, it is the only company to accomplish this. Eventually, Phantom wants to become the OnStar of the autonomous age.
Best Connected Car Accessory: Raven
In a market crowded with dongles that plug into the OBD II port of older cars, Raven is a standout because it solves some of the shortcomings of current car monitoring devices. It includes its own persistent cellular data connection so you always know where the car is (and you don't have to rely on a connected smartphone). It also has a Snapdragon 650 system on a chip to handle the processing, including video from two cameras (one forward-facing, and one facing the cabin so you can see what's happening in and around your vehicle). And Raven has a bright, colorful display that's designed to sit on top of the dashboard. Think of it as a GoPro, navi, geofencing, security, diagnostics, and driver monitoring system all rolled into one--for $299.
Best Car Vision Tech: AdaSky
While many experimental self-driving cars were stranded in the heavy rains that besieged Las Vegas during the opening day of CES, one sensor technology handled the weather with ease: AdaSky's far infrared (FIR) system. Designed to complement the perception systems of semi- and fully autonomous cars, FIR thermal imaging cameras have previously been used in night vision systems. The advantage of FIR is that unlike light distance and ranging (LiDAR) sensors, it is unperturbed by bad weather. During my test demonstration drive, the streets of the city were filling up with water, but the AdaSky system could clearly see people and objects 300 feet ahead, even picking out pedestrians that were virtually invisible to the naked eye. At one point the AdaSky image highlighted a man dressed in white standing alongside a white panel van. The system can even detect the lane demarcation bumps (called Bott's dots) in a deluge, something video cameras have trouble doing even in broad daylight.
Best Traffic Tech: Bosch Climo
Bosch has some impressive car technology, from a self-parking valet system to a complete in-car platform with a haptic touch pad and button-less voice recognition. But it was a little grey box that debuted at CES that may have the most impact on city traffic. Bosch's Climo is about the size of a backpack yet it packs air quality monitoring technology previously requiring refrigerator-sized devices. The Climo can track common particulate, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and pollen levels. Weather resistant, it can be attached to street or traffic light poles to continuously check the air and send the results wirelessly (or via a city's wired infrastructure) back to cloud-based analytical software. Is a new traffic pattern for HOV lanes working? Are EV initiatives effective? Municipalities will be able to tell using Climos dotted around town. The monitors, whose filters only have to be serviced once a year, can even be used to change traffic light patterns to eliminate congestion and reduce pollution.