CES 2016: Why this is the year intelligent cars will start to replace stupid people

An hour into my drive from Las Vegas to Santa Monica, I had good reason to wish that a fraction of the automotive intelligence on show in CES 2016 were already here. In the California desert equivalent of outer space, with no gas station for miles, my cousin – the driver – piped up with his own “Houston, we have a problem”.

CES 2016: Why this is the year intelligent cars will start to replace stupid people

“Um,” he said, “I may have forgotten to fill up the car with petrol.” It transpired, with a minimal amount of probing, that the “may” was a “definitely”. The electronic dashboard of his VW Jetta told him we had five miles’ worth of fuel left, while a glance at Waze confirmed the lack of imminent petrol stations. If we didn’t pull over at the next turn-off then we’d be left on the roadside of the busy Interstate 15.

Parked in the shadow of a long-closed “trading post”, complete with an apt but rusting sign advertising towing services, my cousin called up his insurance company, shamefacedly admitting his error. “No problem,” said the cheerful lady, before breaking off to contact a local contractor. “We can get three gallons delivered to you within an hour. I hope the rest of your day gets better!”

Perfect. Just enough time to consider all the ways my journey could have been smoother if this was the automotive future that CES 2016 promised.

If only we were driving a Ford with SYNC 3

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Ford boss Mark Fields toyed with the audience at his CES keynote, with many expecting him to confirm a rumoured partnership with Google to produce autonomous cars. Despite a number of hints during his presentation, this still remains a rumour.

We do know Ford will be tripling its fleet of test autonomous vehicles from ten to 30, but the feature I longed for was in his list of updates to Ford’s in-car comms and entertainment centre SYNC: not just connectivity with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but the ability to check fuel levels from an app. And no doubt receive “your fuel is running low” alerts too.

If only we had a more connected car

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This all ties in with a huge theme within CES: connected cars. Part of this includes the ability to connect with your home network, so turning on lighting when you pull into the drive, say, but it also means cars can talk to one another. Bosch cited the example of cars skidding on black ice: once the problem’s known about, you can warn others.

In this instance, it would have meant my cousin could have let his wife know that he’d be arriving rather later than scheduled via an automatically updated ETA, rather than having to call her and admit his embarrassing mistake.

If only we had an electric car… maybe

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American cars are gas-guzzlers, with a five-litre engine sitting in our Jetta. While electric cars currently have a problem with range, CES suggests that could soon disappear. The Chevrolet Bolt, scheduled for production in late 2015, promises a 200-mile range from its battery alone. The supplementary petrol engine pushes its range to 420 miles.

The new Bolt “cracks the code” for range and price, according to General Motors CEO Mary Barra at the conference, but that code is under threat from many more than the Bolt. For example, VW unveiled its BUDD-e concept car with a range of 233 miles, while the Faraday Future FFZERO1 race car concept promises 1,000 horsepower and a top speed of more than 200mph.

That said, if I’m crossing a desert, I think I’ll stick with petrol for now.

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If only in-car navigation were better

There are many good reasons to like Waze, but our journey on a Los Angeles freeway exposed its crowdsourcing weaknesses. We were warned of hazards and police presence every few hundred yards, but it struggled to make sense of the maze that is LA’s freeway system.

Toyota reckons it has the answer, with its real-time mapping service debuting at CES for the first time. It will use the GPS and cameras built into its current fleet of cars to build the maps, and claims that as time goes on its maps could be accurate to within 5cm. Compare that to the problems with maps used in typical satnav GPS, which go out of date the instant a road is changed (while mistakes can stick around for years).

Nor is Toyota alone. BMW, Audi and Mercedes/Daimler now own what was previously Nokia’s HERE mapping service, and again the future could – and should – see this base of information supplemented by sensors on vehicles. Again, this could see car-to-car communication if there’s a traffic jam or ice on the roads.

Visitors to Nvidia’s booth saw exactly how this could work, with claims that the HERE HD maps would provide detailed information to 20cm. All this leads to the dream of autonomous driving, where such detail will be crucial.

If only cars were fun places to be

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I remember a time when in-car entertainment equated to an AM/FM radio with six programmable buttons, so I’m grateful for a CD player, let alone the Jetta’s Bluetooth connection we used to access my cousin’s Spotify Premium account.

But this is as nothing to the future promised by CES, with a number of clever audio technologies on show. Directional audio is perhaps the most exciting, with the promise of different sound pockets so that everyone can listen to what they want to.

While directional audio isn’t new, until now it’s been restricted to large setups. Akoustic Arts gave a demo at CES where a portable speaker could direct audio straight to you and only you: so the driver could get instructions, the passenger listen to the football commentary, the kids enjoy One Direction.

We also saw some crazy dash concepts at CES, from a huge central touchscreen for controlling infotainment features in Aston Martin’s Rapide S concept car, to Bosch’s haptic touchscreen tech. Combined with Harman’s clever new headphone technology, which triggers actions based on key sounds, could bickering kids in the back seat soon be a thing of the past?

If only children were better protected

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Certainly they should be safer. My cousin has a 17-month-old girl, so naturally the back seat of the Jetta was home to a baby seat. I didn’t check it, but there’s every chance that this isn’t fitted optimally: studies suggest that just one in five baby seats are installed correctly.

American company 4Moms showed off a self-installing seat that pairs with an app on your phone to automatically control the tension of the belts, and the angle of recline, once installed. It’s due to launch in June for $500.

If only the car could drive itself

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We hit Los Angeles County at around 6.30pm on Thursday, and to say the freeways were packed is the understatement of the century. Such was the premium on space that if we left any more than two car lengths then someone would fill the gap. In a county with a population of four million, over 29,000 suffered an injury in 2013. 227 people lost their lives.

Naturally there’s resistance to artificial intelligence taking charge of our driving – “what if” scenarios abound, from the threat of car hackers to computers unable to decide who to save if a crash is inevitable – but common sense suggests that the number of accidents and fatalities would be cut dramatically.

To take just one example, there was the point where I shouted “car!” and pointed frantically to the right, where someone two lanes over was indicating left just as my cousin was indicating right. Luckily he reacted in time, but it’s exactly those type of scenarios that will be avoided if we switch to machine intelligence.

Many of the technologies on show at CES – from improved real-time mapping to Nvidia’s ever-cleverer “Drive” boards – are paving the way for automated driving, and the quicker it comes the better.

In the meantime, clever tech such as BMW’s mirrorless cars could help to kill blind spots and stop exactly the kind of manoeuvre that caused me to panic on the LA freeway.

If only journeys didn’t take so long

In total, including our unscheduled stop, it took us almost seven hours to travel the 300 miles from Las Vegas to Santa Monica. On a good day, without traffic, Google estimates it would take 4hrs 24mins. Now imagine safer AI drivers meaning we could travel at 100mph rather than 70mph on the freeways: that’s easily an hour shaved off the trip. Cities will become less congested too.

We’ll also get more efficient parking when we reach our destination, with the ability to slip into a space just as someone else is leaving. I can feel the tension slipping away already….

If only car manufacturers delivered on their promises

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This is the biggest problem I’ve had over the years. CES, and indeed specialist motor shows, live in their own reality bubble, and so often the big promises fall away into nothing when cold reality hits. (Did someone say Tesla Model 3?)

Why should 2016 be any different?

For once, there are reasons to be both cheerful and optimistic. Some of that comes from the buzz emanating from CES’s North Hall, where the bulk of the motoring exhibitors showcase their cars, but it’s more to do with concrete dates emerging from spokespeople’s mouths. 2017 for Chevrolet. Confirmation that a Tesla Model 3 prototype will show in March, with the promise of production in 2017.

As can be seen from all the stories above, a groundswell of exciting projects as the whole industry moves to a more intelligent, exciting, eco-friendly future. And note that neither Apple nor Google were talking cars at CES, so there’s more to come from them.

It’s time to be excited by car tech: we’re moving into a phase of delivery rather than promise, and at the same time many of the formidable foundations for automated driving are being laid. In the meantime, just be sure to fill your tank before a long trip.

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