Car culture is gearing up for a revolution. Yes, the automotive industry enjoyed a record-breaking sales year in 2016 (second in a row) and things may seem status quo at the Philadelphia Auto Show, opening next weekend at the Convention Center.
But at the recent CES tech fair in Las Vegas, carmakers and their coterie of collaborators predicted a radically different vision that could have been scored with the song "It's the End of the World as We Know It."
The likes of Ford, Mercedes-Benz/Smart Car, Fiat-Chrysler, Hyundai, and Honda were all demonstrating their progress with "autonomous driving" cars, but with an added "hook." Cars won't just be self-steering and speed-adjusting while giving owners time to catch up on their reading and mobile TV.
More akin to a Pixar Cars-toon, a buggy of the 2020s will be smart enough to drive itself from my house to yours, to take you on errands, or drop you at the movies, then circle round and park itself in our shared garage. Making transitions even smoother, on-board biometrics (such as face and iris detectors) will recognize who is on-board and adjust settings – car temp, radio stations, seat position – to the user's liking.
With urban millennials already using Uber and Lyft, "the idea of sole car ownership doesn't make sense, either economically or in efficiency, with all that wasted time driving around looking for a parking spot in a crowded city," mused Honda designer Jared Hall, as we gazed on his solution: a prototype compact electric vehicle with flip-up side doors dubbed NeuV. Heavy on AI (artificial intelligence), this self-steering, new-electric urban vehicle will be able to "communicate with people" and juggle their biddings from near and far. And fitted with better batteries from the likes of Samsung SDI and Panasonic/Tesla, a NeuV EV will take you more than 300 miles on a charge, then "refuel" 80 percent in as little as 20 minutes at a rest stop. (The last 20 percent of "topping off" goes slower.)
"The trick is to turbo-charge batteries with direct current [DC] rather than feeding in AC power, which is then converted to DC," shared Rich Quattrini of ChargePoint, winner of a grant from the California Energy Commission to "install hundreds of our DC charging stations all over the state." (CP has just five charging locations in our area.)
"At the moment, West Coasters are way ahead on the car-sharing concept," said Honda's Hall. BMW alone has signed up 40,000 customers to its car-share service Reach Now, mostly in Seattle and Portland, Ore. "On the East Coast," where Hall hails from, "people like my dad think this concept is crazy. He'd give up anything else – even TV – before he gave up the car keys." Still, Honda believes it has a revolution to contend with.
So does GM, now a significant shareholder of Lyft and about to launch the cute plug-in electric Chevy Bolt (look for it at the Philly show) at a relatively attractive price of $37,500 before early-bird tax incentives.
The first edition is a u-steer-it with a 225-mile driving range per charge (measured in temperate California with the AC off). But GM has a bunch of autonomous Bolts on the roads in San Francisco and Scottsdale, Ariz. - recognizable with roof-mounted tracking/scanning gear – and GM CEO Mary Barra says the intent is to turn loose thousands as self-piloting Lyft rides. (The flat-floored compact crossover has enough headroom and legroom inside for a quartet of 6-footers.)
The Bolt's back story of how it was made represents another sign of radical change. Carmakers have long depended on outside entities to supply some parts – such as car radios, seats, and hard-to-stamp fender panels, once a claim to fame of the Budd Co., right here in Philly. But the Bolt is such a collaborative project that it deserves dual branding. Eleven core components are being built by LG Electronics, South Korea's second-largest electronics company, including the drive train, battery pack, inverter, infotainment system, and ("co-developed with GM") electric motor.
A by-and-for-millennials transformation of the minivan was in evidence at CES with the Fiat-Chrysler unveiling of the Portal, billed as "a next-generation vehicle that serves as a hub for your life." Instead of a conventional interior, its 20-something designers have "envisioned an open, spacious architectural space" that might just have one seat or several (it "grows with you"), offers a huge "communal" instrument panel that "connects the driver to fellow passengers, other cars and a galaxy of content" and wrap-around video displays on the insides of windows (no problem because you won't be driving). "Personal zoned audio" will be beamed to individual seat locations without headphones. A glowing exterior frame of light wrapping around doors can be varied in color "so you can pick your Portal out from a bunch in a parking lot," said user-experience designer Emilio Feliciano.
While lagging behind other car companies in new tech, Fiat-Chrysler recently delivered 100 Pacifica minivan hybrids to Waymo, the autonomous driving unit of Google parent Alphabet Inc., and name-dropped Samsung and Panasonic as participants in the Portal development.
Also pushing the self-driving cause at CES were un-car companies such as Qualcomm and Intel (supplying brain power), Nuance Communications (speech recognition/AI), Bosch (face recognition and an interesting community-based parking scheme), and Mobileye. The last one is a low-profile Israeli concern responsible for the driver-assistance systems in dozens of carmakers' most bragged-about models, including Audi, BMW, GM, Nissan, and Volvo.