If the last 15 years was the age of the smartphone, the next 15 promise to be the dawn of the smart car.
Our stalwart, four-wheel friends are riding a wave of interest and innovation to become the most important mobile technology in our lives. And nowhere is this trend more evident than at CES 2019.
Spurred by the rise of mobile broadband, zero-emission technologies, and the promise of self-driving vehicles, auto tech has attracted the attention not just of traditional car manufacturers, but of software, hardware, and silicon companies.
Car companies and their partners are imagining car intelligence that recognizes the needs of a new type of customer that’s less interested in actually owning and driving a vehicle.
In my first 48 hours at CES’s parade of private and press events, I lost track of how many companies mentioned cars, autonomy, integrated intelligence, and the incredible promise of 5G for car-to-car communication.
At a breakfast hosted by BMW, company execs painted a vibrant picture of a near future called BMW Vision iNEXT, where the traditional car controls — all those annoying buttons — fade away in favor of voice, touch, and gesture control.
Everyone wants to replace the traditional dashboard with screens. Byton showed off an all-electric car with a display as wide as seven iPads, per CNET. And because you can’t have too many screens, Byton put one in the steering wheel, too.
Cars have always been a collection of sourced parts, but unless you were a car nut, you really didn’t know much about where those parts came from. That’s changing, too, as Samsung touted its Cockpit 2019 concept (co-designed with Harman Kardon). It has multiple screens and includes a version of the company’s Bixby digital assistant.
Qualcomm also showcased a cockpit of the future called Automotive Cockpit Platform Gen 3, complete with lovely, dashboard-spanning LG Displays that were loaded with digital products from Amazon.
The concept vehicle the company showed it off in was laughably basic, but it was packed with digital features. There was Amazon Alexa, Amazon Prime Music, and Prime Video (to be played on screens in the rear compartment). But what caught my eye was the real-time distracted driving monitor that showed the driver and his passenger. So, you watch the road while your car watches you, gauging your attention level.
It’s still not entirely clear how these chip manufacturer cockpit concepts will become reality. The car companies basically consider them suggestions.
On the other hand, Qualcomm, Samsung, and other silicon firms like NVIDIA are already having success convincing traditional car companies to integrate their custom-built car chips and intelligence systems. NVIDIA has its Drive Autopilot System (which provides Tesla V9 Autopilot levels of self-driving autonomy), and Samsung just introduced the Exynos Auto V9, which Audi has already promised to adopt.
Cars are the new platform battleground, with tech and traditional car companies in a race to define the future of driving. I noticed how each chip company was eager to share their car company partner lists.
Obviously, the race to add intelligence is driven primarily by the steady growth of automation. But it’s not just about self-driving cars: Auto manufacturers and their partners want to build safer cars, too.
Toyota’s Guardian technology, for instance, seeks to improve road safety by splitting the difference between human and autonomous control. Instead of taking over driving chores, it’s designed to assist in moments when the driver’s skill might be insufficient to avoid a collision. Toyota Guardian uses many of the same technologies as autonomous driving, but with a twist. In the event of, say, a near crash, Guardian becomes a co-pilot, assisting in maneuvering but never fully taking control out of the driver’s hands. That bit of assistance could mean the difference between an accident and a near miss.
5G weaves through many of the auto innovations planned for the coming years, but instead of enabling better calls and 4K streaming to a pair of back-seat displays, Qualcomm, Toyota, Samsung, and others are positioning 5G as a digital safety net. Qualcomm explained how Cellular to Everything, also known as C-V2X, supports the bandwidth for not only car-to-car communication, but car to anything else that happens to be equipped with 5G communication capabilities. The idea is to deliver intelligence back to vehicles, so the car’s autonomous systems can make split-second decisions to avoid accidents. Ford has committed to including C-V2X capabilities in all new cars by 2022.
When tomorrow’s cars aren’t helping you survive, they’ll be assisting with more mundane tasks, often through voice.
BMW has its own Personal Digital Assistant, there to help you access hidden car features, and alert you if the car needs maintenance. It could even help you de-stress. BMW execs described telling the personal assistant that you’re tired and having the car run a relaxation routine that includes mood lighting, a seat adjustment, music, and a change of temperature. But why have just once voice assistant when you can have two? BMW has no interest in answering general interest questions or helping us buy diapers, so it’s integrating Amazon Alexa, as well.
In fact, Alexa and Google Assistant are set to pop up in all kinds of cars. Google’s monolithic structure in the parking lot outside the Las Vegas Convention Center has a few cars on display to illustrate how you can say “Okay, Google” to activate its assistant inside vehicles. And there are Alexa-infested cars inside the convention center, as well. Samsung is even trying to jam its lesser-known Bixby inside cars. Few people use the assistant, but it hooks into Samsung’s huge line of home appliances, no doubt making it an attractive option to some. Imagine being a mile from home and asking Bixby to turn on your Samsung oven or check the laundry in the Samsung dryer.
Even the way traditional car companies design cars is changing.
BMW explained on Monday that it’s now focusing much more on the human experience and how making each vehicle feel like a customizable, private living room. Yes, really: In its latest concept car, the BMW IX3, the rear seats are replaced with a bench that wraps around to the doors, so you can nuzzle into the corner as you would a couch. At CES, the company has a Mixed Reality installation to help consumers understand the future, friendlier, in-cockpit experience.
I might argue, though, that the design decisions are starting at a deeper level than the plush surface of the passenger bench might suggest. Amid all the talk of autonomous driving and ride-hailing, car companies and their partners are imagining car intelligence that recognizes the needs of a new type of customer who is less interested in actually owning and driving a vehicle.
Ultimately, the car of the near-future is less of a car than an information pod, whisking us from one destination to another. And we can tell our grandchildren that it all started here.