While home for the holidays, I found myself, like many do, catching up with a friend at a bar in my hometown. I’m from Michigan, specifically the northern suburbs of Detroit, where the auto industry has roots that run deep. It’s not as ubiquitous as it once was, but when I was growing up, the majority of my friends had mothers and fathers that were in some way tied to Ford, GM or Chrysler. When the Big Three collapsed in 2008, it took Michigan with it and many of my friends’ parents found themselves out of work.
The situation is not as dire seven years later, but the automotive giants still hang above Metro Detroit like a three-headed God and when big news comes down the pipe regarding one, people still begin to whisper.
My friend and I, being born-and-bred Michiganders, naturally found ourselves discussing the future of the auto industry, and how critical a point it’s at. Everything is changing. The push for autonomous vehicles grabs headlines weekly, electric cars are becoming more prevalent and technology is revolutionizing the way we behave and interact in our cars. Much of the tech shaping the change is on display at CES in 2016. There are boatloads of interesting developments from car makers this year, and they’re giving us a peek at what the future could be.
There is no denying that, after years of rolling out vehicles with woefully outdated technology, the automotive industry is finally picking up speed making. At this point, car makers are moving at an unprecedented pace, as Chris Ziegler of The Verge accurately wrote earlier this week, but the revolution will still take time. And lots of it. For all the exciting news we’ve gotten from CES, there are years and years of development ahead in most cases.
Chevrolet is on target to release the first truly affordable, long range electric car, the Bolt, in late-2016, but there is still a real infrastructure issue plus a market now filled with cheap gas. Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay are being embraced by Ford, but other manufacturers are pushing back in favor of creating their own dashboard systems in house. Fragmentation is a real problem with the amount of car makers in the world, many of which are devoting mammoth amounts of cash to developing their own tech.
With so many companies jockeying for position as harbinger of the future, progress will be slowed. Still, the fact that there is a real head of steam for the auto industry and a clear focus by its major companies to improve the current situation of technology in vehicles, plus new forms of cars, is reason enough to be excited.
Originally thought to be one of Google’s eccentric projects, self-driving cars are a huge part of CES 2016, and it’s clear now that many companies see autonomous vehicles as the future of the industry. Faraday Future, the electric carmaker that unveiled the striking FFZero1 supercar concept this week, noted it is always working toward autonomy. GM wrote Lyft a $500 million check to develop a fleet of self-driving cabs. Ford announced a new sensor that it says will make its self-driving cars the most advanced in the world. Delphi showed off the latest iteration of its vehicle-to-vehicle system that allows autonomous vehicles to have situational awareness. Nvidia announced Drive PX2, a supercomputer for self-driving cars.
Autonomous vehicles, and the tech behind them, are everywhere at CES, and it’s not just with niche projects. There is a pervasive sense the industry believes autonomy is going to lead automobiles to a new generation of vehicles, and the biggest names are making sure to not be left behind.
Tesla is still the biggest name in fully-electric cars, thanks both to its strong product line and magnetic CEO. But, CES has proven the Palo Alto-based company is not the only player in the world of EVs. Aforementioned Faraday Future, often secretive of its workings, unveiled a concept supercar, which is less an example of its eventual production vehicle as it is proof the company has been making significant ground since founding in 2014. More importantly, though, Chevy announced the Bolt, the first long range electric vehicle that comes at a widely affordable price. When introducing the new car, which debuted as a concept during last year’s Detroit Auto Show, GM CEO Mary Barra took a few shots at Tesla, particularly its challenges selling and servicing vehicles across the United States.
As Jalopnik’s Justin Westbrook wrote, this is no cause for concern for Musk and Tesla. The company released a statement praising GM’s ingenuity, saying that traditional car makers committing to the idea of electric vehicles only advances Tesla’s mission. It’s both the truth and a refreshing sentiment from the company, remaining steadfast that the goal is not to monopolize the electric vehicle sector, but to jump start an electric car revolution.
The Bolt is extremely important, both for GM and the industry as a whole. With gas prices falling, people in the U.S. are buying less efficient cars once again, raising the question of whether the market wants an affordable long range EV. If the Bolt sells well, it could push other large manufacturers to follow. If it doesn’t, and gas prices continue to be reasonable, the electric car movement may be stunted.
The most frustrating aspect of today’s cars are the often archaic ways in which they handle entertainment and information. The dashboard console has attempted to include hi-tech for years but, when drivers have the latest and greatest technology in their pockets, most of the efforts by major car companies have fallen flat. CES 2016 brought the promise that the way we interact with our cars is going to get much, much better. Ford will begin to offer support for Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay which, while in need of fine-tuning, are wholly different and improved systems than what most cars currently have. BMW fully unveiled AirTouch, which it announced just before the show, a navigation method that lets drivers use gestures to move about the dashboard OS. Volkswagen previewed the next generation of its own infotainment system, which features a touchscreen and some gesture controls.
Some of these, like AirTouch, are technologies that still need time to bake. But many will find their way into production models within the next year. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay particularly could shift how we interact with our car but, in one of the more intriguing transportation stories from CES, they may not be given the chance.
Ford’s announcement that it will include support for both Apple’s and Google’s answer to in-car infotainment systems is a huge boon for the services, but not everyone is jumping on board. Ford itself will continue to develop its own SYNC AppLink, an interface that connects smartphones to the car’s LCD dashboard panel. Toyota was the biggest newsmaker on this front when it announced it’s adopting SmartDeviceLink, the open-source version of AppLink, for its future in-car electronics. Toyota claims Ford’s platform allows the company to tailor the in-car system with its own apps, making the whole experience safer and more intuitive for the driver. Ford also announced that several other automakers, including Honda, Subaru and Mazda are looking at adopting SDL.
This is an interesting development given the current state of in-car infotainment systems. They are egregiously bad, and there is little reason to believe that car makers can turn things around and build truly useful tools for drivers. Google and Apple have proven they understand how modern electronic navigation should work, but the automotive industry is not interested in ceding control of the dashboard to tech giants.
There is still much to see on this front, and it is entirely possible that SDL is a revolutionary way to connect our phones and cars, but the likelihood of that is slim given past performance. At this moment, it’s hard not to feel like Toyota’s decision signals continued frustration behind the wheel.