CES: Technology and the automobile

The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show kicked off with a huge focus on integrating consumer electronics with the automobile. Ford CEO Mark Fields, Mercedes-Benz Chairman Dieter Zetsche, General Motors “Chief Infotainment Officer” Phil Abram, and Bosch Chairman Werner Stroth are featured keynote speakers this week.

CES 2015

Mercedes Benz

Mercedes-Benz Chairman Dieter Zetsche spoke Monday about worldwide population growth and the transition to more densely populated cities around the globe. “More people [means] more traffic. Some conclude this makes cars less attractive. The car has already seen its best days.

“For me, the opposite holds true. The car grants access to the single most important luxury good of the 21st Century: private space and quality time.”

“Most gadgets here at CES take up your time and consume space in your living area. A giant TV and a Netflix account can keep you busy for weeks.

“Mercedes autonomous driving will give everybody inside of your car the opportunity to browse the web, sleep, work.”

These are things you can already do in your home or on public transportation without that 120 square feet of high technology metal and plastic you pay to idle and store for 20 hours of each day. I got over the thrill of driving decades ago — it’s a drudgery, a chore, so I’m personally excited about the prospect of autonomous driving. Zetsche completely glosses over the fact that you still need to pay to store your vehicle. There’s no comparison in the space taken by that 40 inch TV you hang on a wall vs a large box to move the human spirit. That box needs storage at home, a space at the workplace, yet another at the grocery store, and even with autonomous features to maximize those storage spaces, it will always need road space.

Ford

Ford Motor CEO Mark Fields also addressed the challenges faced by the automotive industry in this morning’s keynote address. He also talked about the problems of adding more people to already congested roads in dense cities, where it takes a half hour to drive the two miles of Las Vegas Boulevard (“The Strip”) between Mandalay Bay and The Wynn, or in Mumbai where “trains are so packed that peoples’ phones and eyeglasses are often crushed.”

Ford Motor Company is very aware of the “problem” of millennials delaying car purchases, with a significant proportion using public transportation “so that they could multi-task.”

Fields says the solution is “Ford Smart Mobility,” which he hopes will “change consumer attitudes” about driving. Fields also points out that the explosion in the global middle class also means growth in the automotive market and acknowledges “The existing infrastructure for vehicles simple cannot sustain” this kind of growth. “Our roadmap must not just include smarter cars, but smarter roads and smarter cities.”

Ford Motor Global Product Development VP Raj Nair took the stage to talk about the nuts and bolts of what he’s working on for the near term. He plans to design and manufacture the “first autonomous vehicle available to the masses.”

Transitioning to that are more pedestrian (ahem) Big Data technologies to enable better route finding (something like an integrated Waze), and the “Parking Spotter,” which finds parking spaces for you.

Nair also discussed proposals to expand on crowd sourced ride sharing with what they call the Dynamic Social Shuttle, which is an experimental point-to-point commuter ride share service in New York City utilizing vans.

Geometry

Ford and Mercedes both seem to understand they have a problem of geometry, namely that large motor vehicles are not compatible with dense city life. Mercedes approaches this by transforming their luxury automobiles into a secondary living, working and entertainment space to further isolate its occupants from the outside world and they impact they have. Ford’s somewhat more collaborative approach uses Big Data and social networking to maximize road and storage space efficiency.

The discussion on autonomous vehicles — and Ford’s assertion in particular that high technology personal cars can improve transportation in Mumbai — reminds me of Jared Walker’s assertion that autonomous cars will not “abolish transit” in dense cities. He writes:

We are currently in that phase of any new techno-thrill where promoters make grandiose claims about the obsolescence of everything that preceded them. Remember how the internet was going to abolish the workplace?

In any case, technology never changes facts of geometry. However successful driverless cars become, transit will remain crucial for dense cities because cities are defined by a shortage of space per person. Mass transit, where densities are high enough to support it, is an immensely efficient use of space.

But all over the world, people are moving into dense cities, where even autonomous cars can’t replace a bus full of 60 people or a train full of hundreds. There simply isn’t enough space to put walls between every pair of travelers, as the car model of transportation requires.

Finally, nobody is talking about resource scarcity in this day when the price of gas is dropping to $2/gallon in the USA which in turn fuels consumer confidence. With declining production at those North Dakota and Alberta oil fields, we’ll see gas prices spike again, quite likely just in time to influence the 2016 Presidential Election.

2 Comments

  1. The auto execs sound like idiots. Yes, people will buy their oversized vehicles, but the vast majority of buyers will be suburbanites or super-wealthy.

    The issue with cars in cities is as you highlighted, an issue of space. Self-driving, shared vehicles could reduce the need for parking, but they still take up space on the road. And if they’re shared, they won’t have the same “second living room” appeal.

  2. I am well over my love affair with driving, and I still welcome autonomous vehicles. I do have friends and even some family that just suggesting you don’t absolutely need a car, or that sometimes it might be better to use public transit would make there heads explode into a mushroom cloud.

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