CES 2019

Augusto Amorim, Senior Manager, Americas Vehicle Sales Forecasts

14 January 2019

Consumer Electronics Show

In-vehicle sensors can measure your body temperature, read your facial expressions and detect driver odors to infer their state of mind. These sensors could be installed in a Light Vehicle and, on a bad day for example, direct the driver to her favorite ice cream parlor. The technology is there – Panasonic demonstrated it with its Emotion Sensing – though it remains some way from being commonly installed in vehicles.

This seemed to be the theme of the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that ended in Las Vegas on Friday 11 January. In the development of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs), drivers look likely to be needed for a while yet as consumer concerns over control, a lack of infrastructure, and a host of other issues clouded the outlook.

In February 2018, Ford launched a self-driving Fusion to deliver Domino’s pizza in Miami. Lesley Rohrbaugh, Director of Market Research at the Consumer Technology Association, which runs CES, said that, while it was cool to have a pizza delivered by an AV, the experience also generated frustration for the consumer, who had to collect the pizza from inside the car themselves instead of having it handed to them at the front door. “We are beginning to understand the limits of automation”, she says.

“We are beginning to understand the limits of automation”

Just one of the limitations is a lack of connected roads. In Colorado, for example, there is a stretch of 90 miles between Golden and Vail filled with sensors that could support a vehicle covering the 1.5-hour journey autonomously. But what happens when it approaches the border with Kansas or Utah? To avoid the vehicle coming to a complete stop, Colorado is investing $20 million to build a further 450 miles of connected roads. However, even then, only highly specific journeys will be supported.

The frustration does not end with autonomy. Wonhong Cho, Hyundai’s CMO, believes the auto industry has yet to deliver on personalisation. “Autonomous and electric vehicles allow for cars to be a living space”, he said, which is why the brand has come up with its Style Set Free concept. Taking a similar approach to Apple where people can customise their phone by installing their preferred apps, it would allow consumers to upgrade the services available in their vehicles, though details were scarce.

So while engineers and lawmakers scramble to make AVs a reality over the longer term, technology is making its way into Light Vehicles even while keeping the driver behind the steering wheel. “Someday, we may achieve Level 4 and 5 autonomy”, says Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, referring to the Society of Automotive Engineers’ scale, this means no driver attention is needed for a car to move around. Toyota already has a name for its high-autonomy technology – Chauffeur – but its initial focus is on Guardian. Toyota says that Guardian will amplify human control instead of removing it from the driving equation. It would be more like planes’ control systems: the pilot uses sticks to direct the flight but, in reality, computers take control of the plane. Guardian will ultimately be standard in all Toyota vehicles, built for Mobility as a Service (MaaS), and would be available to the entire industry.

A more concrete development at CES was the new generation Mercedes-Benz CLA. While the company has pulled out of some traditional auto shows, such as the 2019 NAIAS event in Detroit, it brought the CLA to CES, describing it as an “ultimate wearable”. The four-seater has some S-Class technology, enabling it to operate autonomously in certain conditions, and enhanced software that allows people to talk more naturally to the car’s computers. At the peak sales of the first generation, 70% of CLAs were sold to first-time Mercedes buyers, demonstrating that offering higher-level technology in a more affordable model is critical for the brand in showcasing its capabilities to a wider audience.

“At the peak sales of the first generation, 70% of CLAs were sold to first-time Mercedes buyers”

Also coming is relief from concern about dings in your brand new vehicle when you park. Continental has developed a system that stops doors from opening when sensors detect obstacles. It also helps prevent distracted people exiting the car when another vehicle is approaching and makes it easier to open the door when the car is parked on a slope. Perhaps more futuristically, it can even recognise an approaching user and open the door automatically.

So while flashy headlines about self-opening vehicle doors, or vehicles driving themselves to ice cream parlors, may still be some time away, drivers can count on more technology than ever. And perhaps, as such technology is steadily introduced they will barely even notice it happening.