Concepts, Gadgets, and Self-Driving at CES 2017

Mercedes EQ

Mercedes-Benz Concept EQ

If there was any doubt in your mind that autonomous driving features would arrive quickly in consumer vehicles, maybe you should pay attention to CES this year. With the Detroit Auto Show mere days away, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas provides a good opportunity for automakers to show off what their research and development teams are capable of pulling off with some of their more outlandish ideas. Of course, CES is a day of concepts and thematics more than actual car reveals, but it can be a great way to gauge how the automotive industry feels it will evolve given its current trajectory.

The concepts debuting here are generally more oriented toward the tech enthusiast and may not necessarily be attuned to an actual consumer release. Many of the vehicles look alien, futuristic, and a little too fashion-forward. They are meant to inspire and illicit emotional responses rather than make you want to actually buy one. Automakers want to see what kind of person would be interested in that type of vehicle, and how they would use some of the more innovative features. But despite this space for creativity, most automakers will have one thing in common: Almost every car showing this year is battery-electric, autonomous, or both.

Faraday Future FF 91

Faraday Future FF 91

Perhaps the automaker making the most noise this CES is newcomer Faraday Future. The venture has been shrouded in relative mystery, offering only morsels of actual information to build hype around its upcoming product. After months of stylish hype videos and big talk, Faraday Future finally delivered a tangible demonstration of an intended production vehicle on stage at CES. The Faraday Future FF 91 has a vague release date (sometime in 2018), and its price tag has yet to be announced, but if FF can deliver on its promises with the FF 91, it will certainly be a contender in the EV fray. With some new novel concepts like facial recognition for keyless entry and dual antennae for better Wi-Fi coverage, the FF 91 definitely strives for something unique. And the promise of 370 miles of range on a single charge and a 0-60 time that dethrones the Model S as the fastest electric car in the world would certainly be a welcome. There is a healthy amount of skepticism on how far this Chinese-backed startup can go, however, and it remains to be seen if the FF 91 can become anything other than vaporware.

Mercedes-Benz Vision Van

Mercedes-Benz Vision Van

Mercedes-Benz is bringing two visions into the future of two distinct segments with the Mercedes-Benz EQ (photo at the top of this post) and the Mercedes-Benz Vision Van. Mercedes hopes the EQ will capture consumer interest in performance-driven all-electric SUVs. It is the first vehicle of an “EQ (Electronic Intelligence) portfolio” that will encompass all future Mercedes battery-electric vehicles. Mercedes’ Vision Van occupies a different audience with a more commercial-oriented focus. Branded as the “delivery vehicle of the future,” the Vision Van seems to fit right in with the delivery-service approach for the likes of Amazon. Equipped with roof-mounted delivery drones and an automated rack system for packages in the back, the Vision Van looks to revolutionize the delivery space.

BMW's HoloActive Touch System

BMW’s HoloActive Touch System

In addition to actual concept cars, CES allows automakers to present concept features, like BMW with its BMW HoloActive “Touch” System. The system itself is unlike anything that has been implemented in a vehicle’s interface to date. Currently, BMW does not have any touchscreens in its vehicles to minimize distracted driving. HoloActive looks to replace the center console with a “floating image,” similar to BMW’s heads-up display, that will read the driver’s gestures as input. The HoloActive system uses ultrasonic waves to provide tactile feedback to the driver, so they know if their gesture is registered without having to look away from the road. The system makes it feel as if there are physical buttons floating in the air above the screen. What this means for the driver is that he or she can interact more precisely with their gestures and will get tactile feedback through those ultrasonic sound waves when gestures register.

Chrysler Portal Concept

Chrysler Portal Concept

Although the pitch “designed by Millennials, for Millennials” may be among the worst pitches we’ve heard in recent memory, the Chrysler Portal concept seems to have implemented some great ideas. Buzzwords aside, the Portal offers some interesting design cues. Slated to fit six passengers in three compact rows, the Portal would cover the relatively unoccupied compact minivan vehicle segment. Its flat-load floor and space-saving battery undercarriage allow for an impressive amount of cargo space that can be optimized with its track-mounted seats, which enable the seats to move the length of the vehicle or be removed entirely. This is likely a great approach for Chrysler to take: It has done a fantastic job of modernizing the minivan with its transition from the Town and Country to the new Pacifica. And adding a battery-powered compact 6-seater to Chrysler’s lineup could certainly fill the hole left by the discontinued Chrysler 200.

Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid

Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid with Waymo Self-Driving Sensors

Speaking of the Chrysler Pacifica, Chrysler also has brought perhaps the most tangible product at the show, with its demonstration of the soon-to-be-released Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid. CES will be one of the first opportunities to see the first plug-in hybrid minivan on the market. Where the Pacifica Hybrid gets interesting is where it fits in with the larger theme of autonomous cars. It was revealed last month that Chrysler would be outfitting 100 of these Pacifica Hybrids with sensors and telematics to be piloted in Waymo’s (the company formerly known as Google’s self-driving car project) fleet of autonomous cars. The fact that a potentially self-driving, plug-in hybrid minivan is getting this much attention is pretty remarkable and demonstrates that some of these seemingly crazy, far-reaching concepts shouldn’t get dismissed as crazy.

Which concepts showing at CES 2017 do you think will actually make it to the road?

–John Harrington

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