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  • By John R. Quain

The Best Car Tech of CES 2021

There were no driverless cars wowing wags on the Strip. There were no blimp rides over the desert. And there were no jammed press conferences touting the latest TVs and smartphones. Indeed, there was no CES 2021 in the physical sense in Las Vegas this year. Instead, there was a virtual panoply of Zoom calls and pre-recorded video demos for reporters and reviewers, with only about a quarter of the usual companies participating.

And yet, the stuff of high-tech dreams was still on (virtual) display, with automotive companies continuing to make advances, albeit more modest but still significant improvements. As proof, here is the best of car tech from CES 2021:

Best Autonomous Challenge: The Brickyard

Announced at the virtual CES 2021, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will host a million-dollar autonomous car open-wheel race this October creatively called the Indy Autonomous Challenge. Expecting over 30 teams to participate, the cars (no drivers involved) will only have to complete 20 laps (versus the 200 laps needed to complete the traditional 500 race). But it's a major challenge, with the vehicles reaching speeds of 240 mph, no lanes to guide them, and no real rules to govern driving behavior. It's a programmer's nightmare--or dream, depending on how you look at it.

Best EV Initiative: GM's BrightDrop

The CES keynote this year was delivered by Mary Barra, CEO of GM. She teased a bevy of BVs to come and concepts like a fanciful flying Caddy. But the real scene stealer from GM this year was the announcement of a new venture called BrightDrop that will make electric delivery vans for FedEx starting later this year. BrightDrop will also focus on an end-to-end electrified delivery system that will further charge the warehouse with self-driving battery-powered hand trucks designed to automate another part of the pick-and-pack process.

Electric commercial trucks are the secret weapon in the battle against combustion engines. Daimler has been touting electric trucks for years, and I've driven the company's Fuso big box truck and the battery-powered Daimer tractor trailer. The e-trucks are quieter, pollute less, and offer a return on investment that is increasingly attractive to fleet operators, a financial benefit that isn't immediately obvious to individual consumers. It's also clear that online purchasing and direct-to-consumer delivery will prevail in the post-pandemic world. Electric box trucks and vans therefore make perfect sense going forward.

Best Autonomous Car Tech: Mobileye and Luminar

Mobileye was putting cameras in cars before autonomous vehicles were even a gleam in researchers' eyes. The company has pushed cameras as far as they can go for ADAS systems like lane keeping and emergency braking systems, and in the process it has built one of if not the most extensive classification program available. The company is currently working on coupling that with high-resolution maps to cross over to the autonomous side. That's been slow going, although at the virtual CES, Mobileye's Amnon Shashua said the company is now looking to complete the high res maps (using snippets of info from its existing car-based cameras) in cities such as Tokyo, Detroit, Paris and (hopefully) New York this year. But more astutely, Shashua underlined that while Mobileye is first and foremost a smart camera company, it also understands that lidar will be intrinsic to making autonomous cars a reality. (Imaging radar is also important, he noted.) So Mobileye is currently working with Luminar to complete its self-driving package. Will it someday use its own Intel-based lidar? Maybe, but many have tried and failed.

Meanwhile, the company has been conducting demos in Munich to convince you-know-who to use its system, to wit:

Best In-Car Experience: Mercedes-Benz Hyperscreen

The problem is not that in-dash screens are too big, it's that they are too darn small. More details, such as next-turn info, temperature, speed, traffic congestion ahead, even the radio station you're tuned to--need to be more easily legible at a quick glance. And with electric vehicles, information like available mileage and the location of the next open charging station becomes even more crucial--again, without having to study a tiny LCD looking for the icon you want. So Mercedes-Benz introduced its Hyperscreen at CES. It's an OLED screen that is molded to form of the dash and stretches across the whole front of the car. It's basic 3 screens in one: the driver's info behind the wheel, the center dash with entertainment and nav info, and a screen in front of the passenger. Mercedes said it will use AI to reduce distractions for the driver and introduce the Hyperscreen in its forthcoming EQS electric vehicle.

Best Driver Assistance System: Panasonic and Envisics AI HUD

At the virtual CES, Panasonic was still talking up the delayed Olympics rescheduled for Tokyo this summer. Unfortunately, that looks like a pandemic pipedream at this point. Fortunately, Panasonic's tech announcements were more reality based, with the most outstanding innovation being a new head-up display. Dubbed the Augmented Reality HUD, the system displays information on the windscreen in two planes, near and far. So it includes not only the usual speed and directional info, but also tags objects down the road, such as upcoming stops signs or cyclists on the side of the road.

The company is working with Envisics on the system, which combines in-cabin infrared eyetracking to keep the image in the driver's purview and imaging radar to do pedestrian and object detection. HUDs are still considered a luxury item, but we think it's a safety feature that should be built into every vehicle.

Best "At Long Last" Car Tech: Samsung's Digital Keys

Finally, cell phone makers are launching the Captain Obvious feature: Using the smartphone as a car key fob. The digital key idea isn't new and automakers have offered it in one form or another for years. What's new is the idea of unlocking your car as if it were simply another IoT device.

Until now, such features have been OEM specific using an app on your phone that usually makes the connection via the cloud. (So if you don't have cell service, you're out of luck; Tesla uses Bluetooth instead.) Or you have to have the fob on you--in a not-too-well-insulated pocket, thank you--and then wave your hand at the door handle. Samsung is making it far easier, and like Apple's Car Key feature is tapping into the ultra-wideband (UWB) wireless standard for a direct connection to the car. No Internet connection or key fob required. Samsung said it has already inked deals with Audi, BMW, Ford, and Genesis. (All the companies mentioned here are working with the Car Connectivity Consortium, and older phones can use NFC.)


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