The Best Car Tech of CES 2020
This year's CES 2020 tech show was a much more muted affair than in (many) years past. There was no single killer product, and there was a lot of waiting for future technologies--microLED, a smart home standard, quantum computers. On the automotive side, CES was still very much a car tech show, but many companies were treading more cautiously or not offering rides in autonomous cars at all.
Nevertheless, out of the 4,000-plus companies appearing at CES and the surrounding Las Vegas environs, there were some notable presentations. Here is the best mobility tech of the 2020 show:
Best Big Picture: Toyota Town & E-Palette
Toyota calls it the Woven City, a 175-acre former factory area in the shadow of Mount Fuji that it plans to turn into a living lab of future city technologies. It will include hydrogen fuel cells, solar panel roofs, underground delivery systems, a tripartite road system to keep pedestrians safe, and only allow autonomous vehicles. Part of that picture is Toyota's omnibus e-Palette autonomous electric vehicle, which was introduced 2 years ago. At that time, the e-Palette seemed farfetched but today it looks downright prescient as part shared mobility service, robotic delivery system, and mobile marketplace pop-up store.
Best Surprise: Sony S-Vision Car
I sat in Sony's S-Vision, surrounded by hundreds of gawkers at CES. The concept car was designed to be a showcase for Sony technology, including a wrap-around dashboard screen, 360-degree sound system, and a raft of video sensors. The sensors enabled engineers to give the S-Vision a video-based rear view camera that eliminates blindspots (like that introduced in the 2016 Cadillac CT6), as well as substitute tiny, aerodynamic side cameras for the traditional bulky side mirrors. All in all, a fascinating proof of concept, not from a Silicon Valley disruptor, but from a preeminent consumer electronics firm. It left many people wondering, hey, whatever happened to that Apple Car?
Best Supporting Auto Tech: FLIR Systems
Last fall, AAA revealed the results of tests that uncovered some of the inherent flaws of camera- and radar-based automatic braking systems. One major issue: they all failed to protect pedestrians at night.
At CES, yet another far infrared sensor company, FLIR, demonstrated why they think they have a solution. Driving at night in Vegas, the company's camera easily picked out pedestrians otherwise cloaked in darkness. The sensors also work well in the rain, so FLIR thinks it could improve not only the safety of future autonomous vehicles but also of existing ADAS braking systems.
Best Self-Driving Demo: Yandex
For the second year in a row, Russian technology company Yandex took me for a ride, in a manner of speaking, in its fully autonomous Prius. Using a lidar-based system, the vehicle negotiated some tricky traffic, lots of left turns, and even construction zones. No safety driver behind the wheel, thank you very much. The system also uses high-res maps, and I found the software had improved over the last 12 months, with smoother steering and added smarts that politely waited for a human driver to enter the road...until we realized the human driver was distracted reading his smartphone. NB: Yandex is part of a growing trend that the VC crowd should take note of: While it's currently using Velodyne lidar sensors, Yandex plans to make it own lidar pucks in the future. Also announcing they were going to make their own lidar, Bosch and Sony.
Best EV Product: Wallbox
Electric cars are all well and good, but what we want--what we really, really want--is bidirectional charging. The idea is that with future suburbs full of plugged-in EVs, those car batteries could give power back to the grid during peak demand times, acting as a backup to prevent brownouts, or even total blackouts. Then, when things calm down at night, cars could return to charging. Wallbox, a home charging system provider, wants to enable bidirectional charging now. Its Quasar product is competitively priced at about $4,000. Unfortunately, few utilities and few vehicles currently support bidirectional charging. Currently, get it?
Best Radar: Vayyar
There are several companies working on more advanced so-called imaging radar systems. None of these promise the kind of perception precision that could replace lidar or video cameras, but 4D radar does promise a lot more detail and important information not only about what's happening outside but also about what's happening inside the car. Vayyar's system was a standout for its multiple transceivers (up to 72) and short-range sensing. Side-mounted sensors did a good job seeing an oncoming scooter rider (the bane of Tel Aviv drivers) while inside the cabin another sensor used its motion sensing skills to make sure no child was left behind when we parked the car.