2019 CES: Quiet year for green-car and self-driving news

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2019 Nissan Leaf Plus

2019 Nissan Leaf Plus

As always, the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show held this week in Las Vegas was massive.

Hundreds of thousands of attendees, workers, and support staff converged at multiple venues to show off their latest wares, meet with clients, partners, and the media and try to break through the news clutter.

For automotive news, however, this year’s CES was considerably quieter than past years have been. Discussions of fuel efficiency and new technologies for lower-emission transportation were largely absent, and no entirely new vehicles debuted—although the show did see an updated Mercedes-Benz and, finally, the longer-range Nissan Leaf Plus electric car.

As for self-driving technology, a major theme of previous years, announcements were considerably more muted and qualified.

At CES, this year’s discussions about future autonomy focused on more accurate and lower-cost sensor technologies and the use of artificial intelligence to provide greater safety benefits through greater deployment of assistive technologies.

Gone were the previous years’ promises of Level 4 autonomy (full self driving in specific conditions), and promises of fully autonomous driving arriving any time now were downplayed, if they were present at all.

What follows are just a few of the announcements and trends from CES 2019 we considered notable.

Audi virtual reality platform, 2019 CES

Audi virtual reality platform, 2019 CES

AUDI: The German luxury brand wants to transform the ride experience for back seat passengers, and at CES, it demonstrated its latest virtual-reality platform to achieve that, developed by its subsidiary Audi Electronics Ventures.

It also announced the formation of a new startup company called Holoride that will commercialize the technology via an open platform that lets other parties create content for it.

Through the VR technology, backseat riders can immerse themselves in different universes that work together with the car and its infotainment systems and interior.

In Las Vegas, Audi showed off an experience called "Marvel's Avengers: Rocket's Rescue Run," in which riders are dispatched via rocket into outer space, along with characters from the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies.

The chance of motion sickness, always a concern with such systems, is significantly reduced because the system coordinates its visual experiences with the car's motions.

Byton M-Byte production interior

Byton M-Byte production interior

BYTON: The electric-car startup didn't debut any new vehicles—though it had its M-Byte and K-Byte luxury SUV concepts on display.

It did, however, show renderings and details for the final dashboard and interior that will appear in the production version of the M-Byte when it rolls off the assembly lines.

The revisions include a steering-wheel touchscreen moved up enough to allow a driver's airbag to be fitted in the steering-wheel hub, and a central touchpad display so front-seat passengers could access the infotainment system.

Whether they'll be comfortable doing so with their left hands in LHD markets remains to be seen.

Hyundai Elevate concept

Hyundai Elevate concept

HYUNDAI: Perhaps the most distinctive and social-media-friendly concept car at CES came from Korea.

The Hyundai Elevate "walking car" concept combines electric power with the capability of robotics to rethink where cars can travel.

Wheels on extendable robotic legs give users options: drive, walk, even climb over the most treacherous terrain. In the end, the Elevate resembled nothing so much as a fantasy straight out of a “Star Wars” movie.

It's not likely to hit production, and it's on the fringes of what might even be considered a car, but it sure did get a lot of coverage.

Hyundai also previewed future holographic augmented-reality display technology that turns an entire windshield into a display, shown in a Genesis G80 luxury sedan.

Benefits range from showing a driver which turns to take on your selected route to information about nearby restaurants and tourist attractions.

Kenworth T680 with Toyota hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain, at 2019 CES

Kenworth T680 with Toyota hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain, at 2019 CES

Kenworth T680 with Toyota hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain, at 2019 CES

Kenworth T680 with Toyota hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain, at 2019 CES

Kenworth T680 with Toyota hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain, at 2019 CES

Kenworth T680 with Toyota hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain, at 2019 CES

KENWORTH: The heavy-truck maker, owned by truck conglomerate PACCAR, partnered with Toyota to show a prototype electric Class 8 semi tractor powered by a pair of Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell stacks and a 12-kilowatt-hour battery pack.

The partners announced they would build 10 of the trucks by the end of next year, to be tested in drayage use at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Funded by a collection of state programs aimed at radically cutting emissions from the 16,000 trucks that carry freight to and from the ports each day—all of them presently powered by diesel engines.

The fuel-cell semis are claimed to have a range of up to 300 miles on the 60 kg of compressed hydrogen they carry. That’s enough for several runs within the 60-mile radius that defines local goods transport.

The partners are also planning two high-flow hydrogen stations that will fill the trucks’ six hydrogen tanks entirely full in just half an hour. Freight drivers have already said they like the zero-emission electrically powered haulers for their silence, lack of vibration, and strong acceleration from a stop.

There’s also a comfort factor: The ports require trucks that aren’t moving to switch off their engines, which eliminates air conditioning for the drivers. The hydrogen trucks can run their cabin cooling nonstop even when stopped—perhaps the most appealing factor for drivers who wait hours to load or unload in southern California sun.

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA Class, photo by Ronan Glon

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA Class, photo by Ronan Glon

MERCEDES-BENZ: The 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA may have been the highest-volume model unveiled at CES this year.

A redesign of the German luxury maker’s smallest North American offering, the new CLA has more aggressive frontal styling, slightly enlarged dimensions, and an entirely new interior.

It now offers side-by-side 7-inch or 10-inch digital dashboard displays with the company's MBux virtual assistant, in a scaled-down version of a feature that debuted on its S-Class large luxury sedans.

The company opened with a video clip in which a bashful new CLA worried to an EQC electric crossover and an advanced-technology concept car that it wasn’t cool enough to debut at such a show. It did debut, of course, rendering the attempt at whimsy slightly heavy-handed to some.

2019 Nissan Leaf

2019 Nissan Leaf

NISSAN: While Nissan introduced a new and improved model of a key advanced-technology vehicle, it did so in a relatively quiet and modest way.

The 2019 Nissan Leaf Plus is the long-awaited version of its aging Leaf electric car that finally offers more than 200 miles of range, enabling it to compete with the Chevrolet Bolt EV—now entering its third model year—and the new Hyundai Kona Electric, both starting at less than $40,000.

While it retains the existing AESC lithium-ion cells, the 60-kilowatt-hour battery of the Leaf Plus is slightly taller and 50 percent higher in capacity than the current Leaf, updated for 2018. Disappointing some potential buyers, the larger pack also retains its predecessors’ passive cooling. Rumors of forced-air cooling did not arrive on the production Leaf Plus.

But, it offer a longer range—projected at 226 miles—and considerably more power, at 160 kilowatts (215 horsepower). Other tweaks are minor, including a new 8-inch color display screen in the dash. Visually, you have to look very closely to note its slightly taller stance and deeper doorsills, which cover a pack that extends slightly closer to the ground.

The Leaf Plus will be sold in S, SV, and SL trim levels alongside the existing 40-kwh Leaf, which is rated at 151 miles of range. The new version is likely the last update to a vehicle whose underpinnings found their first buyer way back in December 2010.

The Leaf will be supplanted by vehicles built on an entirely new dedicated electric-vehicle architecture late next year, to be shared among Nissan and its alliance partners Renault and Mitsubishi. The first of those is likely to be an all-electric compact crossover utility vehicle to be unveiled late in 2020.

Toyota Research Institute simulation of actual 3-car crash, to test Guardian active-safety system

Toyota Research Institute simulation of actual 3-car crash, to test Guardian active-safety system

TOYOTA: The news from Japan’s largest automaker that will likely have the most impact on the highest number of drivers concerned development of what it calls the Toyota Guardian safety software.

The conservative company took a bit of a risk by opening its presentation with simulations of a real-world highway crash that it said could have been avoided with better vehicle awareness and artificial-intelligence software.

Gil Pratt, the head of the Toyota Research Institute, took part in a roundtable in which he laid out the company’s near-term and long-range goals for autonomous driving technology.

In the next few years, TRI will focus on Guardian, which continually monitors the vehicle and its surroundings, but only steps in to take action if it senses the car is in danger or the driver is asking it to do something that could lead to a crash.

The longer-range goal, which it calls “Chauffeur,” is the provision of a fully self-driving vehicle with Level 5 autonomy.

But Pratt spent considerable effort pointing out how far out that goal remained, stressing that the company had adopted a policy that such capabilities would have to be all but perfectly capable under any circumstances in which they were deployed.

Toyota Research Institute P4 Automated Driving Test Vehicle

Toyota Research Institute P4 Automated Driving Test Vehicle

That, he said, will be many years from now.

Toyota also debuted its latest test vehicle for development of self-driving software, based on the new Lexus LS luxury sedan.

Aside from the streamlined housing on its roof that covered a myriad of lidar, radar, and camera sensors, you might not know Toyota’s TRI-P4 fourth-generation self-driving test car was stuffed with electronics and advanced software.

Waymo self-driving car

Waymo self-driving car

WAYMO: The news from Google’s self-driving car project was less about what it could do than about what it thought it couldn’t.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik told England’s Financial Times that Level 5 autonomony, in which a car can drive itself anywhere under any conditions, might never be achievable in some types of bad weather.

That goal is the Holy Grail for vehicle autonomy. So Krafcik’s caution came as a sobering statement from the head of a company widely acknowledged to be at the very forefront of developing autonomous technology.

It demonstrated once more that while many steps toward autonomous driving are available today, in the form of active-safety features like adaptive cruise control and active lane control, providing the “any time, anywhere, under any circumstances” autonomy often discussed as if it’s just around the corner may in fact take decades. If it’s possible at all.

Toyota provided some travel and accommodation to enable Internet Brands Automotive to cover its various announcements at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show.

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