The automotive race towards autonomous cars has been ratcheted up another gear, with driverless and tech-assisted vehicles emerging as the leading trend at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, which opened to the public in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
Despite executives from some big carmakers sounding cautious notes on timescales for the conclusions of such technology, one of the auto world’s largest players went so far as to predict that we will reach the hallowed “level 5” (industry speak for full automation) by 2024. In a presentation and Q&A session on the first day of CES 2018, Carlos Ghosn, the part-Lebanese chief executive of the Alliance (a three-pronged entity comprising Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi), suggested that autonomous driving will reach level 5 in the next six years. “Our main goal is to be ready for it,” the 63-year-old said. The globe-spanning collaboration had previously announced plans to launch 12 fully-electric models and 40 vehicles with autonomous technology within the same time period.
Ghosn reasoned that “the trend for electrification is unstoppable”, an opinion that was backed by the number of production and concept electric vehicles on display at the annual tech extravaganza.
Battery power remained the chief source of propulsion, although Hyundai upped its stake in hydrogen fuel-cell cars with the futuristic-looking Nexo, a small SUV that is expected to go on sale in the United States before the end of this year. The UAE’s hydrogen-charging network is at a nascent stage, with the first station launched last year by Toyota, so it will likely require significant investment before the Nexo hits the UAE in any practical form.
The Nexo is not to be confused with the similarly named Niro, from South Korean compatriot Kia. This compact crossover EV concept made its global debut at CES, and while the unremarkable design won't set the world alight, that could be put down to the fact that it shares a platform with an existing car: Hyundai's Ioniq.
From recent past to immediate future: this week, The National will test drive the second generation of Nissan's popular EV, the Leaf, as displayed on the carmaker's CES stand. It will go on sale in the UAE for the first time later this year – following hot on the heels of a link-up with Expo 2020, which in November announced Nissan as its official automotive partner. The new Leaf, which is showcasing Nissan's ProPilot driver-assist tech, is expected to form a notable part of about 1,000 vehicles that will be provided for the event.
The Japanese company went one step further at CES with a truly mind-boggling addition to the autonomous genre, lifting the lid on its “brain-to-vehicle” project. Although currently at the development stage, regular demonstrations of B2V on Nissan’s stand, by the scheme’s Romanian-born research scientist Dr Lucian Gheorghe, showed how a headset measuring brainwaves can use this information to predict a driver’s movements – and even discomfort. Actions such as turning the steering wheel or braking can be completed up to half a second faster with this assistance, while Nissan’s executive vice president Daniele Schillaci told us that it could also be used for applications such as changing the temperature of the car’s air conditioning.
Ride-hailing app Lyft has been demonstrating semi-autonomous cars to its customers in Vegas, with the aid of British company Aptiv. It is an experiment that has been met with almost universal praise for its successful, smooth operation – albeit tempered by grumbles that in the traffic-signal-riddled Nevada city, the rides haven’t been exactly pulse-quickening.
It wasn’t exclusively household-name conglomerates and tech darlings leading the way in Vegas, however. Eagle-eyed Silicon Valley watchers will have noted the absence of perhaps the chief driver in the latest car-tech trends, Tesla, but CES did see a rival to Elon Musk’s trailblazing concern make its debut, in the resurrected form of Fisker. The second incarnation of Henrik Fisker’s California-based company unveiled its arresting, fully-electric sports car, the EMotion. It not only ticks eye-grabbing design boxes, with its butterfly doors, but also wields impressive stats: 0 to 100kph in less than three seconds, 780hp and a range of more than 600 kilometres. The price tag – from about Dh475,000 – certainly suggests it could compete with Tesla.
China has increasingly become a key mover in the EV market, and the latest model to be funded by investors from the world’s most populous country is the Byton Concept, which drew droves of CES onlookers – an impressive feat for a largely unknown brand. Level 3 autonomy is the benchmark that carmakers have currently reached in models such as Audi’s new A8, and that is matched by the Byton. Don’t call it an SUV, though. Byton prefers SIV (smart intuitive vehicle).
Google’s Assistant branding might have been plastered over everything from CES’s entrance to electronic billboards and the city’s monorail, but it is Amazon’s Alexa that has sweet-talked its way inside Toyota and Lexus’s cars. It has been announced that it will be available in some vehicles from later this year. With all of that aforementioned autonomous technology on the way, you might want to ask Alexa to order you a few books and/or a Kindle while it is booted up – adding items to a virtual shopping cart is among its various functions. Who knows, perhaps the side effect of all this time-freeing tech will be a vastly better-read population.