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The Best Cars, Car Tech, and Trends of CES 2020

LAS VEGAS – CES 2020 cemented its role as the most important show for automotive technology, with a handful of new car introductions (and re-introductions) plus lots of standalone technologies this week. Most US auto shows other than perhaps LA don’t generate a critical mass of tech-oriented auto company people, analysts, and journalists. CES certainly did.

Some might snicker when Byton CEO Daniel Kircher called the M-Byte EV “the first smart device on wheels,” but not the people attending this show. Of the vehicle introductions and concept cars, all were electrified – EVs or plug-in hybrids – with no gas-engine-only vehicles introduced.

Here are some highlights from the car and car tech part of CES 2020.

Nissan Ariya EV: Bigger than the Leaf, more range, and an SUV, not a sedan.

Best Debut: Nissan Turns Over a New Leaf

The biggest car debut – of a real car, or one that will be a real car – of CES was the Nissan Ariya. It’s a crossover / SUV intended to replace or (more likely) supplant the 10-year-old Nissan Leaf. The Ariya is bigger than the Leaf, offers two motors where the Leaf has one, and gets up to 300 miles on a charge versus 225 for the Leaf. With even more of the market headed toward SUVs, that’s how the Ariya is styled. The Leaf is a four-door sedan.

All this came down at the same time showgoers got news of how former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn made good his, ah, departure from Japan, in a shipping box punched full of air holes, on a private jet, and heard Ghosn rail against the accused-is-presumed-guilty system of justice, as he described it. (He also dissed Nissan, his former employer.) The two events had nothing to do with each other, beyond the company being Nissan in both cases.

The Jeep Wrangler gets a PHEV variant. Not many chargers in the Moab Desert, but the e-motor still provides torque for rock-crawling.

Jeep Gets 3 Electrified Vehicles

Fiat Centoventi concept.

FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobile) plans to electrify its entire iconic Jeep line by 2022. That doesn’t mean EV-only vehicles but plug-in hybrid (PHEV) models with up to 30 miles of battery-power driving before the gas engine kicks in. They’ll have vehicle badges marked “4xe” and include the traditional (Jeep-looking) Wrangler, the tiny Renegade, and Compass SUV. In Europe, Jeep said the vehicles will have an electric motor and 1.3-liter turbo-four engine producing 240 hp. “Electrification … will modernize the Jeep brand as it strives to become the leader in green eco-friendly premium technology,” the company says.

FCA also showed the Fiat Centoventi, a 145-inch, four-seater with suicide doors, and room for one to four batteries (they slide in), allowing 100-500 km of range, or 62-311 miles. An upscale model would get a 20-inch display in addition to the standard 10-incher. The late Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne said Fiat was losing $ 10,000 a car making the Fiat 500e; hopefully, this has better margins.

Sony Vision-S concept with a wall of LCDs across the dashboard.

Front Seat Displays Get Bigger

The Byton M-Byte is the winner with a 48-inch LCD (one single panel) that includes SPF-30 in the glove box. The display in the Sony Vision-S concept car was only slightly smaller. The tiny Fiat Centoventi concept EV can be had with an optional 20-inch panel. Byton even has an LCD panel in the steering wheel. Pimp-my-ride tuners did that years ago. The difference is Byton’s is legal because the airbag is still there in the lower third of the wheel hub. For Byton, it was a re-introduction of the M-Byte as a production-ready vehicle (first cars, late 2020, US 2021) after a CES 2018 unveiling.

Sony shocked CES  – that is, advance word didn’t leak out – with its Vision-S concept car that also had a width of the cockpit array of LCDs, including side mirror / blind spot LCDs on the left and right edges. Not that Sony will build an EV and compete with Tesla; this was a car to remind the automakers that Sony, too, makes a lot of car electronics beyond in-dash radios.

Displays are getting bigger in general. A 7-inch display doesn’t cut it anymore except on the very cheapest cars where navigation is your phone, not a $ 500-$ 1,000 navigation package. More instrument panels are now 12 inches and some higher-end vendors pair it with a second 12-inch in the center stack. Mercedes made the small seam between the two fall in with your line of vision and the steering wheel, so it appears as a single panel to the driver. Midsize and bigger cars will need 10-inch center stack displays to remain competitive. The Mustang Mach-E EV gets a 15-inch portrait display.

At the same time, the perceived image size of head-up displays is increasing. This allows for augmented reality HUDs, in this case meaning the car tracks the position of your eyes relative to the HUD, and overlays where-to-turn arrows in your line of sight so it appears to be floating over the actual turn. For this who say “too distracting, too dangerous,” it helps to drive a head-up-display car to see how HUDs reduce distraction.

BMW i Interaction Ease seats: recycled materials, embedded touch surfaces, embedded LED lighting.

BMW Car Seats Become Lounge Chairs

As cars become self-driven cars and the driving controls go away, automakers are imagining big, spacious, amorphous-shape seats for the passengers. BMW fleshed out the concept with not just one but three variants. All three are currently unobtainable; two because they’re concepts, and the third because it will be on the BMW X7 SUV and others in a couple of years and only to those comfortable with a $ 1,500 lease payment.

The most far-out is the BMW i Interaction Ease concept interior that BMW’s head of development Klaus Froelich described as a “supreme luxury experience …  The merger of advanced technology and design creates an almost human bond with the car.” The two seats are joined together (no room for cupholders! Oh, the humanity!), with integrated leg rests. They embed touch surfaces for selecting, say, infotainment, and in this concept, areas light up in order to confirm a selection or provide ambiance. The concepts also provide immense legroom. BMW says the abstract interior of the i Interation Ease interior “underscores the potential of intuitive, almost human-like interaction between passenger and vehicle.”

Got that? In the real world, we wonder if the extra length that adds to the car is compatible with the desire for shorter vehicles in urban areas. But if they’re self-driving, they can just go somewhere else after you dismiss the car for the evening, and parking is not your problem.

ZeroG Lounger in BMW X7.

The ZeroG Lounger is close to production. Fitted in three BMW X7s for CES, the seat tips back 60 degrees, including the seat pan. An entertainment screen drops down from the sunshade location. An integrated seat belt and cocoon airbag protect a reclined passenger. Most cars with recliners today warn you not to use the feature while driving. (Right.) BMW says the “ZeroG Lounger … will be ready for series production vehicles in just a few years in a similar form.” We can hardly wait. (Seriously, for once.) This is the kind of feature that makes a long trip comfortable for the passenger. It would be nice if BMW could fit one in an X5, a more attainable BMW.

Lastly, the BMW i3 Urban Suite: BMW ripped out the interior of the outgoing i3 carbon-fiber EV and turned the right rear passenger space into a sloped back lounging seat (if you want to sit upright, the driver’s seat is off the stock vehicle). The right front seat is a sliding footrest. The left rear seat is a wood table with a securely fastened lamp. It’s cool, it’s impractical, and it keeps our attention while waiting for the 2021 BMW i4 EV with, we hear, a 530-hp motor, 300 miles of range, and the ability to go head to head with the Tesla Model 3.

The Visteon domain controller (lower left) encapsulates dozens of microprocessors; variants scale for more displays or processing power.

Fewer Control Modules Do More Work

This is geeky, so feel free to skip down to the snow-in-Detroit photo. [But isn’t this ExtremeTech? -Ed] As cars do more things electronically, the number of microprocessors is up around 100. Tier 1 suppliers, the big boys such as Visteon, Continental, Bosch, Magna, and Aptiv, are integrating lots of small modules into a couple of uber-modules, or domain controllers: one for safety, one for infotainment, one for the engine room. That reduces the amount of wiring in the car. There are still connections, but only sharing as much data as necessary, between say infotainment and the safety modules. The telematics modem has to provide in-car Wi-Fi and also has to call for help in an accident, which are separate domains.

Visteon advanced tech director Upton Bowden says a supplier can scale up the microprocessor within a domain controller for more or less performance. or to drive additional displays, all as needed. That means the unit doesn’t have to be certified and tested multiple times for slightly different applications. And the Tier 1 supplier takes responsibility for vetting all the parts inside, giving the automaker, in quaint parlance, just one throat to choke if there’s a development issue.

Detroit’s North American Auto Show. It snows there in January. NAIAS never had a chance against CES on the tech front. Or the weather front. The LA show moved to November and also stole Detroit’s thunder. Detroit reboots as a spring/summer show this June.

CES Did Not Kill the Detroit Auto Show

The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) gave up its January slot for one in June. Some believe CES blew Detroit out of the water. Actually, the shows are different. Every major auto show (LA, New York, Detroit, Chicago, DC) is more about 10 days of showing cars to customers; the press/analysts days tacked on for 2-3 days beforehand are just a way to get the automakers to build fancy booths and then turn them over to the local dealer associations. Meanwhile, the high-end European automakers realized their market share in Michigan rounded off to zero percent and bailed.

And the LA Auto Show, which had been in January a week away from NAIAS, moved to late November, where it has cemented its role as the show for green vehicles (it is in California) with its press days branded AutoMobility LA. Plus, LA has a goodly number of new car intros, and the Audi-BMW-Jaguar-Infiniti-Lexus-Mercedes-Porsche companies know SoCal is fertile hunting ground. NAIAS took a half-hearted stab at being a tech show with something called Automobili-D, but it was too little, too late, and stuck it down in the basement of Cobo Hall (now called TCF Center).

Anyway, CES is way bigger than Detroit or any other US auto show for media and industry participation. The SEMA show in Las Vegas in early November is more of a tuner/parts show. Comdex, the computer show, could have been an auto tech show but it didn’t survive much past Y2K. And Detroit gets to reinvent itself as an auto show / outdoor festival in June. All that’s left of the January show is the freestanding North American Car and Truck of the Year (NACTOY) at TCF Center Monday. Beyond Detroit, auto shows face an uncertain future as automakers question how much money to invest. Mercedes-Benz also pulled out of the New York International Auto Show (NYIAS) for 2020 even though it’s the company’s most lucrative sales turf. That is a bad sign for auto shows.

Consumer Technology Association president Gary Shapiro, left, interviews Counselor to the President Ivanka Trump Tuesday. (Photo: CES)

Ivanka Trump Speaks, World Did Not End

Much was made of the Consumer Technology Association (the CES organizer) inviting first daughter and counselor to the President Ivanka Trump to do a one-on-one keynote interview with CTA President / CEO Gary Shapiro. There was concern Shapiro and CTA were trying to tip the scales Trumpward in an election year. (Maybe. But it’s a long way from election day, and enough Democratic officeholders show up at CES to speak most years.) Some resistance formed around the hashtag #BoycottCES, but it meant giving up paid-for $ 500-a-night rooms, so if there was a boycott, it was of the one-on-one chat.

For the most part, Ivanka Trump didn’t say anything outlandish in her 40 minutes; she mostly restated the company line. For the most part, there are other more women in tech who would have been better role models. The best criticism was “Ivanka Trump Keynoting At CES Is All That Is Wrong For Women In Tech” by Carolina Milanesi in Forbes.

Nobody booed. Many agreed with Trump that “our immigration system is totally flawed,” although some of her related comments about making visa slots available for skilled workers may go beyond what the administration is doing. Tech and car companies are desperate for highly skilled engineers and computer scientists.

The bottom line is: Many CTA member companies do manufacturing in China. They’d rather not see their products tariffed. If a high-profile, softball interview for Ivanka makes the White House like consumer tech companies and go easy on tariffs, it’s the price you pay to make commerce run smoothly.

The odor of burning leaves in Vegas concentrated on overpasses on the Strip.

Mini-Trends and Gossip From CES Week in Vegas

On the Strip, Las Vegas Boulevard, the smell of weed was almost everywhere. Especially on the overpasses necessary to get you safely over the six-to-eight lanes of roadway. A friend from a software-development firm said, “With all our bio-engineering skills, you’d think someone could weed [yes, a pun] out the smell.”

There were multiple EVs,  people-haulers, and transporters of the future — some nicely rounded (Toyota’s concept, top image), others small-and-tall minibusses for a half-dozen commuters. Toyota even envisioned a future Woven City community it will begin building at the base of Mount Fuji in 2021. Mercedes-Benz showed a far-out, doorless AVTR (Avatar) linked to the James Cameron movie. It senses the heartbeat and pulse of the occupant and responds with a welcoming thump on the seatback.

Automotive Grade Linux (AGL) continues to make strides winning converts, especially from the QNX OS. QNX initially took down Microsoft Windows Embedded Automotive when it won over the Ford business to underpin Ford Sync back in 2014. Now it’s pretty much a fight among AGL, QNX, and Android. The AGL consortium announced a reference design to make it easier for automakers to port their cars over.

BMW said it would be the first automaker with 5G in-car telematics, working with telematics partner Samsung, in the 2021 BMW iNext EV. BMW has a long history with Samsung; its now-subsidiary Harman has produced BMW’s last four infotainment head units and BMW’s iDrive system is considered to be the most competent infotainment controller, nearly two decades after the first edition in 2001.

TriEye SWIR camera.

New kinds of sensors may improve driving and self-driving. TriEye showed SWIR, or short-wave infrared lidar, in a camera that improves visibility in dusty, snowy and rainy conditions, the company says. WaveSense talked up ground-penetrating radar for self-driving. Say what – you want to go forward, not down? CTO Byron Stanley says the soil composition, buried pipes, and cables create a unique fingerprint that, once mapped, lets the car know its location within a few inches. And it’s not affected by above-ground weather conditions.

If anything got people upset about CES, it wasn’t the monorail lines (better than in previous years), long waits in cab lines (Lyft and Uber solved that problem), or all the security checks (cursory; you could sneak in a cruise missile). It was paying $ 25-$ 50 a day for a “resort” fee. I came in early to see a college hockey tournament at the new T-Mobile Center on the strip when Vegas was still quiet in the days just after New Year’s Eve revelers departed. The first three nights, my $ 43 (with taxes) daily resort fee was more than the room. (By midweek, some rooms were offered by hoteliers at $ 2,000 a night.) The resort fee amounted to two bottles of water a day, use of the grandly named health center, and swimming pool access, which in the winter means you can walk out on the patio to admire the drained pool.

CES Las Vegas has always been an international show (and there are consumer electronics shows outside the US). There seemed to be more Asian participants this year, especially from high-level players, but ranging from parts-maker companies with two-person booths to larger companies from Korea (actually, South Korea; not much take coming out of the North), Japan, Taiwan, India, and especially China. Byton (China) had a huge press conference Sunday. Harman, a unit of Samsung (South Korea), took over most of the exhibit hall space at the Hard Rock Hotel (which was bought by Richard Branson and will be rebuilt for CES 2021 as the Virgin Hotel). Car tech, consumer tech, it’s a global business.

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