Under pressure from Google, Tesla, and possibly even Apple, car manufacturers roared into CES and staked their claim for the autonomous vehicles of the future.
By far, the biggest leap forward at CES 2016 was the progress being made in autonomous vehicles. All of the top automakers were at CES presenting their fully-loaded plans for self-driving cars and they turned the Las Vegas Convention Center's North Hall—usually a hinterland of random also-rans—into the epicenter of the show.
Videos extolling their self-driving vehicles splashed across 50-foot video screens, photos and prototypes of friendly, automated cars-of-the-future preened front and center, and prosaic testing vehicles with funny-looking spinning antennas stood as proof that progress is being made.
Meanwhile, automakers gave CES keynotes, staged press conferences, and had an endless parade of backroom meetings to talk up their suddenly aggressive plans to bring self-driving cars to market in the next four years.
"The auto industry will change more in the next 5-10 years than it has in the past 50," said GM CEO Mary Barra during her CES keynote on Wednesday.
At Ford's press conference on Tuesday, CEO Mark Fields said, "I predict that 2016 will be a revolutionary year in the automotive industry."
Ford was at the center of the hottest rumor leading into CES after a Yahoo news report stated that Google and Ford were preparing to announce a partnership on self-driving vehicles. Fields indirectly shot down the rumor at his press conference, saying Ford partners with lots of other organizations—especially universities.
Fields emphasized that Ford has "been focused on autonomous vehicles for over a decade." And, he announced that the company would triple its fleet of autonomous testing vehicles from 10 to 30 by the middle of 2016.
"This gives us the world's largest autonomous vehicle testing fleet," Fields said.
Afterward, other Ford executives that TechRepublic spoke with clarified Fields' statement by saying that it would give the company the largest testing fleet "among automakers." The implication was that they have no idea how many testing vehicles Google has, which casts further doubt on the pre-CES rumors.
Clearly, all of the mega-companies that make up the automotive world are driven by a powerful mix of fear and new possibilities. In 2015, Google touted that self-driving vehicles would be a consumer product by 2020 and Tesla delivered a software upgrade with the first beta version of self-driving to its Tesla Model S customers. Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk stated that in two years his company would have the technology ready for fully automated level 4 self-driving cars. August 2015 also brought a report, based on public records research by The Guardian, that Apple is working on an electric self-driving car.
It would be naive to think that the frenzy of activity around autonomous vehicles at CES 2016 was not a reaction to Google, Tesla, and Apple.
The chart below shows that two-thirds of car buyers under 35 would be willing to buy a car from a tech company, and buyers in huge markets such as India (81%) and China (74%) would also be open to the idea.
Perhaps the biggest challenge that existing automakers face in the race to autonomous vehicles is that these future cars are going to be shells for a lot of big data analytics, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence. Those aren't areas that carmakers have as a core competency. While computers have been deeply embedding themselves in cars for more than a decade—Ford says there are over 150,000 lines of code in an F150—the kind of intelligence and machine learning that it will take to power a self-driving car is a whole different ballgame. Google and Tesla already have that baked into their DNA. Every automaker will have to change to become that kind of company.
The cars of the future will defined more by software and algorithms than by steel and rubber.
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