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CES 2018: What happens in Vegas, stays important for driverless tech

An autonomous BMW 5 Series is transporting guests to the Concention Center. (Photo: BMW)

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By now, there is no doubt that automated driving will become a reality. In fact, it is becoming increasingly tangible. Inside the halls of CES in Las Vegas, manufacturers are making concrete announcements, while outside, robotaxis are whizzing guests up and down the Strip.

Ronda’s job is relatively simple. Essentially, she is no different to a normal taxi driver sitting in front of a steering wheel for 12 hours a day during the Consumer Electronics Show. However, while her colleagues actually have to take on the traffic in their colorful Toyota Prius vehicles, she spends most of her time with her hands in her lap. Her converted BMW 5 Series is one of the eight test vehicles that ride-sharing service Lyft, together with Delphi spin-off Aptiv, is using to show off automated driving at the world’s biggest electronics fair – meaning her car drives itself along the Las Vegas Strip.

The spectacularly unspectacular journey from the Convention Center to Caesars Palace demonstrates that automated driving is no longer a distant vision. Ever since the first DARPA Grand Challenge in Vegas 14 years ago, it has been clear to everyone that automated driving will eventually arrive. An idea that has been repeatedly strengthened by the numerous media frenzies surrounding producers’ test drives.

Now, however, at this year’s CES the technology actually feels real. Not only because Ronda has very little to do as her vehicle impressively demonstrates how far car assistant systems have come. And not only because suppliers can show off increasingly powerful processors that allow faster computing or increasingly accurate sensors that keep getting smaller enabling easier integration. But also because the statements and announcements being made by key players are more concrete than ever before. Rather than vaguely referring to the “future” or decades to come, there is mention of actual dates and years that are not all that far away.

Concrete timelines for driverless cars

General Motors wants to have the first robotaxis on the streets as early as next year, for example. Ford is not far behind, aiming to have several thousand such cars on the road in two to three years. Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi boss Carlos Ghosn is aiming for 2024 at the latest, while Korean firm Kia wants to carry out extensive tests of fleets with autonomous driving functions on public roads from 2019. The first commercial application of the technology will follow in 2021 in the form of “smart city” pilot projects, in which vehicles with Level 4 automation will be introduced in cities with the necessary intelligent infrastructure. And from 2021, Hyundai wants to make drivers redundant with their new fuel-cell powered car Nexo.

The Hyundai Nexo: fuel-cell powered and autonomous. (Photo: Hyundai)

Required alliances between producers and suppliers are also becoming stronger. Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang can be seen going from one car manufacturer to the next at CES, allowing his super speedy chips to be celebrated. Rarely does a day go by when mapping data service HERE doesn’t form a new partnership, filling online digital maps for autonomous vehicles with yet more content. Elsewhere, new partnerships are constantly being formed. Ahead of CES, start-up company Aurora, founded by former Google project manager Chris Urmson, became linked to two manufacturers: VW and Hyundai.

Yet, despite all the optimism, the more concrete the automated era seems, the clearer the outstanding issues become – even if they lie more with infrastructure and society than with the cars themselves. It is therefore not surprising that the stretch of road to be covered by Ronda’s autonomous shuttle was measured again by Aptiv ahead of CES. Or that there is no other city or state outside Las Vegas in Nevada where such tests are approved – not to mention day-to-day operation without the human back-up solution.

Heavy investments in research

While the car industry could easily have taken a back seat here and left topics beyond the steering wheel to other players, they didn’t. After all, they too have a keen interest in putting the technology on the road and eventually earning back some of the billions they have invested in research and development. The best example is of this is the alliance being led by Carlos Ghosn. As he won’t achieve his objectives with his own three companies alone, he has now freed up a one billion dollar fund to finance different mobility start-ups charged with finding solutions to specific problems.  

Kia wants to carry out extensive tests of autonomous fleets on public roads from 2019. (Photo: Kia)

Even if automated driving is slowly becoming plausible and even if when in Ronda’s car it is possible to begin to imagine the roads of the future, it seems nobody is ready to predict where it will lead and how it will change our mobility. “Only now are we starting to realise just how much this technology will enable,” said new Ford CEO Jim Hackett in his keynote speech. He also promised to help the world. Having invented the assembly line, Ford is most closely associated with the mass production of cars and therefore also feels responsible for congested cities and polluted air. With this in mind, they announced a new open platform at CES that will facilitate the flow of information between future mobility services. “With the power of AI and the rise of autonomous and connected vehicles, we have technology capable of a complete disruption and redesign of the surface transportation system for the first time in a century,” announced the Ford CEO, highlighting, among other things, intelligent parking, congestion free roads and intelligent goods delivery. 

Lyft driver Ronda however still remains somewhat removed from all this. Her journey to the world of autonomous driving ends every evening with the closing of the hall at CES. She parks her test vehicle in the car park, turns off the autonomous system and lets someone else drive her home – the bus driver.

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