CES 2017: Chrysler joins the autonomous vehicle parade

Chrysler's Portal, an electric concept car, promises level 3 autonomous driving, V2V, V2I, and biometric technology. Here's what you should know.

On Tuesday at CES 2017, Fiat Chrysler debuted the Portal, a battery-electric concept car capable of semi-autonomy. Designed for millennials, the high-tech car is a sleeker version of the Pacifica minivan, and comes equipped with tech that enables V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) and V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) communication.

The Portal is powered by a a lithium-ion battery pack, rated at about 100 kilowatt-hours (kWh), and can run for more than 250 miles after a full charge. Chrysler is also embracing facial and voice recognition, which that can allow for more personalized driving experiences.

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But more importantly, the van comes with the tech to make it capable of Level 3 autonomous driving--a combination of LiDAR, radar, cameras, and ultrasonic sensors. The 360-degree cameras used in Portal come from Samsung Electronics, and Panasonic Automotive provided other sensors. While Level 3 driving cedes most control to the car, it still requires an active driver who can regain control in certain situations.

"It's a great vehicle to base a future of selling thousands of vehicles to fleets operating autonomous cars," said Michael Ramsey, autonomous vehicle expert at Gartner. "It also shows a potential pivot of FCA toward electric vehicles that it had been hesitant about earlier."

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This step is an important advance in Chrysler's move toward autonomous vehicles. In May 2016, Chrysler announced a partnership with Google, which had previously been working on developing its own autonomous car. It was Google's first direct collaboration with a carmaker, and signaled Chrysler's intention to develop autonomous vehicles using Google's technology.

More recently, Chrysler partnered with Waymo, a spinoff of Google's self-driving project, promising to offer 100 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans to the driverless tech company.

"It has the expected features of a concept vehicle--vehicular communication, autonomous operation, voice recognition. I like the idea of it being upgradeable to be able to add other features to it," said Jeffrey Miller, IEEE member and associate professor of engineering at the University of Southern California. "Chrysler is showing that they are going to be a player in the autonomous vehicle market even though they aren't an early adopter."

The automaker defies labels for the 6-seater, declining to call it a minivan, SUV or crossover--instead, it calls it a "next-generation vehicle."

But while the car has an impressive look, it's hard to say what it will really be capable of. Bryant Walker Smith, leading expert on the legal aspects of autonomous driving, put it this way: "I'd think a concept car --a vision with no certain prospect of actual realization--might aspire to Level 4."

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