This Changes Everything: CES Shows How the Automobile is Becoming a Computer on Wheels

This Changes Everything: CES Shows How the Automobile is Becoming a Computer on Wheels

We’ve reached an era where “data power is more important than horsepower,” suggested Daniel Kirchert, the head of the ambitious Chinese EV manufacturer Byton. Skeptics only had to attend this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to understand what he means.

Since its founding in 1967, CES has focused on TVs, audio systems and other electronic gadgets, over the years adding things like smartphones, drones and digital cameras. But a visit to the Las Vegas Convention Center this past week might have shocked the uninitiated, automobiles and automotive technology taking over the entire North Hall, virtually half the space devoted to the annual show. But that really should be no surprise.

The automobile is already a computer on wheels, high-end products like a Mercedes-Benz S-Class relying on scores of microprocessors to control their infotainment and advanced driver assistance systems, never mind engine, transmission and suspension systems. Even base cars are loaded up with more and more digital technology. Try to find a 2020 model without a digital display. The trend will only accelerate as we move towards an era when electrified and autonomous vehicles are expected to dominate highways.

The Byton M-Byte video dashboard. (Photo: Paul A. Eisenstein/

Appropriately, the debut of Byton’s all-electric M-Byte kicked off CES 2020. These days, the SUV‘s 240 miles of range is no longer a headline. The big news is the 48-inch videoscreen instrument panel meant to “seamless integrate into your digital life,” according to Kirchert. It will operate all the apps and services you’ll find at home or office, or on your smartphone, Byton claims, and the start-up has already lined up deals with an assortment of content providers like ViacomCBS which will stream its vast catalog of movies and TV show.

For the moment, you’ll have to be in Park to watch the latest blockbuster film, but “It’s not (about) the here and now. It’s where it goes in the future when autonomous driving comes along,” explained Ted Schilowitz, a futurist with ViacomCBS’s Paramount Pictures subsidiary.

The Mercedes-Benz Vision ATR with director James Cameron and Daimler CEO Ola Kallenius. (Photo: Mercedes)

Walking through the convention center’s North Hall you would have heard the word, “autonomy,” almost everywhere, in fact. Nissan Creative Chief Alfonso Albaisa showed off the self-driving Ariya concept vehicle. At the Mercedes-Benz booth, crowds thronged to check out the Vision AVTR show car developed with the assistance of James Cameron, the director behind the hit film, Avatar. No steering wheel, but AVTR featured augmented and virtual reality technology able to create “experiences” simulating the film’s alien world, Na’Vi.

Supplier Mobileye hawked autonomous vision systems. Continental , Panasonic and others pitched laser, radar and sonar sensors, while Bridgestone showed tires capable of detecting their own tread wear, something useful for ride-sharing companies like Uber which wants to cut costs by getting rid of its human drivers.

Sony delivered one of the biggest surprises of the show, unveiling the Vision-S concept vehicle featuring nearly three dozen different sensors, an array of video displays and the electronic platform to make them work together.

That said, one thing was missing from this year’s show: autonomous vehicles that you can actually buy, or at least ride in, today. It wasn’t all that long ago Nissan promised a fully self-driving battery-car by 2020. Tesla, meanwhile, has repeatedly delayed the launch of its completely autonomous Autopilot system. Reality has a way of rearing its ugly head once you cut through all the hype.

A mock-up of the Hyundai S-A1 flying taxi. (Photo: Paul A. Eisenstein/

In the lab, or in a limited situation, with a human ready to take control in an emergency, self-driving technology “is fairly simple to demonstrate right now,” explained Gill Pratt, the head of the Toyota Research Institute. “However, safe deployment (in a production situation, without a human backup driver) is a completely different proposition.”

Among the industry’s most pragmatic executives in charge of autonomous vehicle development, Pratt is confident the technology will come – eventually. But he sees it rolling out in stages, with go-anywhere, anytime, under all conditions autonomy – what is known as Level 5 technology — a decade or more away.

That doesn’t mean the explosive growth of digital automotive technology is on hold, as you’d discover while continuing your tour of CES.

Infotainment technology will continue to get more complex and capable. EV start-up Rivian showed off the system that will be used in its all-electric R1T pickup and R1S SUV and, considering Amazon is one of its major investors, they will integrate the Alexa voice assistant system.

Continental and Sennheiser have developed a speakerless audio system that turns interior panels into speakers. (Photo: Continental)

Ford – also a Rivian investor – brought the new Mustang Mach-E to CES demonstrating its smartphone-as-key system. Forget your keyfob. Your phone will unlock doors, start the engine and operate numerous vehicle functions, including charging, remotely.

Virtually every aspect of the automobile, and the automotive industry is changing, CES 2020 revealed. Several manufacturers have begun 3D printing parts for their vehicles and we could see the technology used to entirely produce vehicles in the future, allowing more customizability. On a smaller scale, Continental and Sennheiser announced the development of an automotive audio system that doesn’t need conventional speakers.

Hyundai, meanwhile, became the latest to try to redefine itself as a “mobility company,” announcing a new partnership with Uber that could see it begin mass-producing flying taxis like the S-A1 mockup it debuted before the end of the decade.

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda shows off a rendering of Toyota Woven City. (Photo: Paul A. Eisenstein,

Perhaps the most radical and far reaching news from this year’s CES – whatever hall you were exploring – could be found at the Toyota stand where the Japanese giant revealed its plan to build an entire city from the ground up. Dubbed Toyota Woven City, it is meant to be a “living laboratory,” according to President Akio Toyoda, and address the myriad problems facing cities around the world, including energy supplies, pollution and traffic congestion. Not surprisingly, the automaker showed off the self-driving shuttles that will be the only motorized vehicles allowed in Woven City.

General Motors’ Futurama display at the 1964 New York World’s Fair gave us a glimpse of what the the world might look like in the 21st century. Now that we’re here, despite some hype, it’s CES that provides an even more accurate picture of what’s coming, especially in the world of mobility.


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