Few people want to go to Las Vegas immediately after the New Year. Never a fan of the place at the best of times, I dutifully boarded the plane anyway. Like it or not, if one wants to see everyone’s ideas for the car of the near future, there’s no better time and place to do that than CES.
There’s an irony to hearing about smart mobility at CES, considering all the dumb reality outside. The show has grown so much that getting from the convention center to anything offsite now takes an hour if you’re unlucky. Figure in a lot of needed—but unwanted—rain that caused havoc with self-driving demos and electrical transformers, and the whole thing became an ordeal.
That ordeal kicked off days before the main exhibit hall even opened. It’s fitting that Nvidia started the proceedings on Sunday; its graphics chips bear more responsibility than most for the blossoming of autonomy. The latest of these is called Xavier, and if things go Nvidia’s way, they’ll be found under every robo-taxi’s access panel. Nvidia is forming big partnerships: Baidu, Uber, and Volkswagen Group are three of the latest names to be announced.
Fellow silicon seller Intel has similar designs on the car of the future—it wouldn’t have paid more than $15 billion for MobilEye otherwise. Intel’s new EyeQ4 system-on-chip is now fully able to do the near-real-time, crowd-sourced map updating that we’ve written about, and the technology is soon to hit the roads in new BMWs, Nissans, and Volkswagens.
Automotive names don’t get much bigger than Ferrari, and that, too, was a card Intel plucked from its hat. The two are going to use AI to enhance the racing experience, something I’m going to have to dig into real soon.
As it happened, my first robo-taxi ride of 2018 was several hours old by the time the lights dimmed and the embargoes ended. You might not have heard of Aptiv yet, but you probably know its work: until recently, it was known as Delphi before spinning off its powertrain division under the old name (hence the rebranding). Aptiv and Lyft had teamed up for CES to offer a real-life Johnny Cab service.
“We need to build trust in the technology,” explained Jada Tapley, VP of advanced engineering at Aptiv. How better to do so than putting that tech straight into service?
Aptiv’s fleet of BMW 540s, studded and jeweled with sensors but more immediately noticeable for their safety orange wheels, spent CES ferrying people from the convention center to any of around 20 hotels. Pulling into and out of parking lots was a job for Patrick, who was the safety monitor on my ride with Tapley. Private property concerns meant only humans were allowed to drive the final few hundred feet.
Once on the public roads, Patrick had a boring old time, poised to take the wheel but denied a reason. From the front passenger seat, Tapley talked us through the 30-minute ride to Caesar’s Palace and back. (By Tuesday, this route must have taken twice as long.) The BMW’s infotainment screen displayed a stripped-down graphical representation of the environment around us as sensed and then perceived by the car.
With her attention toward us in the back—I was sharing this ride with another correspondent—Tapley missed the sole moment of excitement. As we traveled up the Strip, a bus one lane over had stopped to disgorge itself of passengers. The driver had chosen to stop at a jaunty angle rather than neatly parallel to the curb on one side and the flow of traffic on the other. So although the back left corner of the bus was still actually in its lane, had I (or you) been driving we’d probably have slowed a little and moved over to give it added room.
The BMW—with its Intel silicon brain, nine lidars, 10 radars, two GPS antennas, and the rest of it—isn’t you or me. As if to confirm the superior accuracy possible with the latest in sensor fusion and high-accuracy localization, it knew exactly how much free space there was between its right-most extremity and the corner of the bus, and it didn’t see fit to slow or alter our line.
Tapley’s first idea that anything out of the ordinary had taken place was when she saw the pair of us in the back instinctively flinch. That level of machine-enabled precision is one of the main selling points for autonomous driving, but it’s probably going to take some getting used to.
Beyond those few seconds of excitement, I would have had no idea Patrick hadn’t done all the driving if I had not been watching his hands.
“We want it to feel remarkably unremarkable,” Tapley told me—consider that mission achieved. As I would confirm by week’s end, even if Lyft doubled its effective fleet that week with thousands of such vehicles, they wouldn’t have helped. The real holdups—the 15 minutes either side of the actual driving—were spent being poorly directed around Vegas-sized parking lots.
That’s why a later demo of Hitachi’s Auto Valet Parking system found such a receptive audience. Vehicles equipped with Auto Valet authenticate with a central parking control center, which then directs them around the multilevel garage. The system knows where every car and every free space is, and it knows how best to get all the cars into spaces and then back to their owners as efficiently as possible. (Of course, the drawback is Auto Valet only works if every vehicle is able to be directed by central control.)
Listing image by Daimler