If one is looking for a barometer of the evolution of the motor vehicle, one of the best places to find it is in the rising pressure on car makers to display automotive technology at consumer tech shows.
While the likes of the Detroit, Geneva and Tokyo Motor Shows still dominate launches, unveilings and announcements, the technology breakthroughs are slowly moving across to the likes of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona.
Marque by marque, the car makers are trying to find a place among the gadgets and smart devices. Twelve major manufacturers now make their way to CES as a matter of course. And one manufacturer did the unthinkable in 2016: launched a new vehicle at MWC.
The biggest news announced at CES 2016 was not of a technology but of a piece of paper. To be precise, a driving licence. But this was no ordinary licence.
The US state of Nevada, home of CES, awarded the world’s first test licence for autonomous driving of a standard production car. The real big news was that the beneficiary was not a futuristic concept car of the kind launched by Nissan at the Tokyo Motor Show in October or by Mercedes-Benz at last year’s CES.
Instead, it was the new Mercedes E-Class, with three standard production 2017 models given approval to drive themselves by the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles (NDMV).
It is difficult to overstate the significance of this news. It means that the autonomous vehicle is no longer an experimental toy built by Google and operated by geeks. It means that vehicle software creators like Microsoft and BlackBerry no longer have to persuade manufacturers that this is their future. It means the likes of Ford, Audi and Volvo will also move on from elaborate adaptation of existing vehicles, modified steering and retro-fitting sensors.
As a Daimler statement put it, “The standard-production vehicle is already extensively equipped with intelligent technology. This means that, for testing purposes, it is necessary merely to make some smaller software modifications to the DRIVE PILOT control unit.”
But the robots have not taken over. Yet. For now, the self-driving cars will still need a trained test driver. While the tests are allowed on all highways in Nevada, human drivers have to take over for turning, merging and departing. The NDMV rules also require one passenger behind the wheel and a second passenger in the vehicle on test drives.
Meanwhile, the unveiling of a new vehicle at the MWC 2016 represented a seismic event in the history of both vehicle manufacture and consumer technology.
At the world’s largest expo devoted to mobile technology, the unveiling of the new Ford Kuga SUV marked the final crossing over of car technology into the preserve of consumer devices. While manufacturers have been showing off in-vehicle advances and self-driving possibilities at CES for around seven years, the event always played second fiddle in this arena to the Detroit Motor Show. Detroit would see the unveiling of the latest cars and tech, while Las Vegas would act as a showcase. Around six weeks later, MWC in Barcelona would find itself coughing in the exhaust smoke of the media bandwagon that had been and gone.
No more. The presence of the new Kuga at MWC was almost as significant as the keynote address by Mark Fields, CEO and president of Ford Motor Company, who declared the manufacturer’s repositioning as both an automotive and mobile business.
This repositioning is at the heart of the choice of tech show rather than a car show to launch a new vehicle. However, the Kuga also offers the most convincing evidence yet of the mainstream potential of the connected car.
It debuts the latest version of Ford’s on-board information and entertainment system, SYNC 3, which uses conversational voice commands to control audio, navigation, and climate functions. It also integrates seamlessly with most smartphones by supporting Apple CarPlay for iPhones and Android Auto for Android devices. It means that any app available on the handsets can appear on the vehicle’s 8-inch touchscreen display and be controlled from there.
This represents a dramatic breakthrough, particularly in the world of in-vehicle navigation, which traditionally confined drivers to the mapping systems that came with the cars – and were thus already obsolete when they rolled off the production lines. SYNC 3 allows the latest version of Google Maps, Apple Maps or HERE Maps, for example, to be called up from the phone.
The significance of this is that vehicles can, for the first time, take full advantage of the rapid evolution of mobile technology, apps and utilities. In the next few years, the technology will be rolled out to all new Ford vehicles, meaning that cars aimed at the mass market will enjoy the same information system advances as high-end vehicles.
The Kuga introduces new driver assistance technologies as well, serving as a precursor to autonomous or self-driving vehicles. The existing semi-autonomous Active Park Assist technology is joined by Perpendicular Parking functionality, which uses ultrasonic sensors to locate parking spaces and steer the vehicle into them. The driver still controls the accelerator and brake, but the hard work is taken over by the car.
Coming out of parking spaces also becomes safer through additional sensors. The Cross Traffic Alert uses a radar with a 40-metre range to warn drivers of vehicles approaching from either side.
The sensors, which are for now the key to making vehicles safer, will be at the heart of the future self-driving car. That means that the Kuga is not only a taste of the future, but also a proof-of-concept that will hasten the arrival of tomorrow’s car.
When it does arrive, as we are seeing in Nevada, it will also signal a new era of licensing authorities having to reeducate themselves on the capabilities and limitations of vehicles. But don’t expect that to happen overnight.
Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee, and subscribe to his YouTube channel