Saturday, January 9, 2016

2016 CES Review

Alexander Carabitses

2016 is upon us, and with every new year comes two important media shows, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.  The former took place this past week, while the Detroit auto show is taking place in the upcoming week.  For this reason, I have two posts meant to review one show and preview the other; enjoy...

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is a big show, all around the world.  In years past, gear-heads like me wouldn't give a damn about it.  However, thanks to an ever changing industry and a large group of millennials who either can't afford a car, or simply don't want one, we now have two things that spell out a big change in the industry as we know it: autonomous (i.e. self-driving) cars and car sharing services like Zipcar.  I first want to say that I have nothing against autonomous cars, as they are indeed the future of the automobile as we know it.  As long as sports cars still exist and certain luxury brands that place an emphasis on great driving dynamics continue to offer cars that can be manually driven (maybe as an option or trim level), I won't mind one bit.  And I hope this is the case, as I want to get excited about autonomous cars, without the fear that cars like the Ferrari F12 and Chevy Corvette will be mere memories from the bygone days of the industry.

However, I hate the idea of car sharing with a passion.  If the number of program members continues to increase, we are looking at automakers merely becoming fleet contractors; there is a reason that it is being coined as the greatest threat to the auto industry by long time auto journalists and analysts.  Once cars can drive themselves, we will see users call a car to their location with their smart phones; there will no longer be a need to own a car if you are living in a metropolitan area.  Taxi companies will be dead, although autonomous cars would kill them off anyway.  As for that popular, trendy way of getting from place to place, Uber, I have no doubt in my mind that the company will screw all of its drivers in the end, once it realizes that it does't have a need for them.  Think about it, what would be the point of having the owner of an autonomous car show up at somebody's house to pick them up if the driver isn't actually driving? Sure the driver will make money, but Uber wants to make money as a company.  The moral of the story is, unless you enjoy being scammed by corporate America, don't become an Uber driver, unless you are desperate for work.  The company will eventually ditch you as it looks towards the future.

Like I said earlier, car sharing is a major threat to the auto industry, almost as much as the last minute CAFE regulations in the late 1970s were for the domestic auto industry.  The only difference now is that automakers, both foreign and domestic, are paying close attention to these trends, with BMW testing its own ride sharing program in Europe, Chevrolet partnering with Lyft, and Ford working on all sorts of mobility alternatives for future customers, such as drones, special bikes, and scooters.  I applaud these automakers, as well as many others for taking these changing times in stride.  They want to survive these times, but they also know that if they do so, their industry will never be the same.

Future mobility systems, autonomous car news, connected car technology, and in-car electronics have made this show an important one for the auto industry in the past, and this year was no different.  Some analysts even say that CES may overtake Detroit in terms of importance.  I think that eventually that will be the case, and given that three new vehicles were shown at this show, there may be some evidence to back up this claim.  However, the only reason Detroit should see this show as a threat, is the timing of CES, as it falls one week before Detroit.  In reality, CES may have had a leg up on Detroit last year with all of the news that came out of that show, but New York also made the Detroit Show look lame to a student of the industry, like me. If you were an analyst or journalist, you had the same reaction to the show that most consumers did.  You drooled over the Ford GT, imagined yourself being chauffeured to your private jet in the back of the Buick Avenir Concept, and you started hoping that the Acura NSX would be priced within your budget when it came out.  However, you forgot everything else.  New York was another story, with so many important product launches, it was both a great show for those who cover the industry and consumers alike.

Moving on to the vehicles that were shown, I want to first start off with this Volkswagen Budd-e Concept electric vehicle.  While highlighting electric technology may be just the thing for VW, given that they can't use TDI as green cred anymore, I wish they would stop with these Microbus themed concepts.  The Bulli Concept from 2011 was the best, and this was by far the worst, right behind the one that debuted in the early 2000s. As a standalone concept it's cool, even without the connectivity, but I wish they had gone for something more original. The only specs worth noting on vehicle are its  low center of gravity, due to a floor mounted battery pack and that the car can go 300 miles on a single charge.  Beyond that, it is a technological showcase of future connectivity, something that was a major trend at this years show. The idea is that owners will be able to have their car perform certain tasks, such as making dinner reservations, turning on your coffee maker, and having the car recognize the driver so it can adjust the driving position, the climate control, etc.
(Image credited to Volkswagen)

The most important debut was the production version of the 2017 Chevy Bolt.  Without getting into too many technical details, this all electric car will go 200 miles on a charge and can be charged in nine hours using a 240 volt outlet.  A DC fast charging unit will eventually be available.  The most important thing is that once government incentives are factored in, the car will cost $30,000.  As for the design, it looks like a BMW i3, only it doesn't look as futuristic.  I believe the conventional styling will win over many buyers, as will the price, range, and overall vehicle packaging.
(Image credited to Chevrolet)

Faraday Future FFZero1 Concept:  know that this car is beautiful. Also know that it is a car that Faraday Future doesn't plan to build, but rather use as a means of previewing the brand's design language.  In case you were wondering what Faraday Future is, its basically a startup company whose goal is to appeal to the car customer of tomorrow.  Their cars will be autonomous, made for car sharing, and will also place a huge emphasis on connectivity.  The company's first production car should be out in the next few years.  For more information on the brand, click here.
(Image credited to Faraday Future)

Beyond the product news, Kia showed an autonomous Soul test car, BMW showed an i8 roadster featuring a great deal of connectivity and some autonomous features, and Nissan says that they will have 10 autonomous cars on the road by 2020.  Like I said, autonomous cars are the future.
(Image credited to BMW)

In all honesty, I was very impressed with this year's CES, and once I began to delve into the coverage, I found all of the recent consumer connectivity developments to be fascinating. I will admit that am not really into technology, but I am still blown away by these recent developments, and I want to see more.  I don't just want it exclusively at CES, I want it at all of the major auto shows, and not just at some preview night on the eve of the show. Detroit, LA, and New York, as well as the European auto shows need to encourage the showcasing of vehicles like Faraday Future's stunning concept. This is how the industry will expand into the future, yet do so within the common familiarities that have sustained it for generations. Until that day comes, however, if you are truly into the future of transportation and the auto industry, pay close attention to CES in the future.  However, if you are a conventional gear-head, you'll probably be more interested in the 2016 NAIAS.  The preview post will be up soon, so stay tuned.

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