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CES 2016: the race is on to redefine personal mobility

The automotive world converged in Las Vegas in early January for the annual CES (Consumer Electronics Show), which stole the spotlights from the North American International Automobile Show (NAIAS) opened on January 11 in Detroit.

Nine automakers, 10 global tier-1 suppliers and more than 115 automotive tech companies took up more than 200,000 square feet of display space at CES, effectively turning the annual event into the Car Electronics Show. The Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which organized CES, naturally called the automotive section “a show within a show.” CES, a show that has been held for nearly half a century primarily focused on the latest in consumer electronics gadgets, has definitely become the perennial stage for global debuts of new car and truck technologies.

Automotive companies showcased a wide array of new products and technologies dedicated to the smarter, greener, connected and autonomous car. These included high-precision map generation from the likes of Toyota, Mobileye and HERE, advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) solutions from suppliers such as Delphi, Magna and Bosch, gesture and voice control technologies from Audi and BMW and the latest in sensor and radar technologies from Velodyne and Quanergy.

If there was one common theme that resonated throughout the automotive exhibits space at CES, it was that not only will the cars of the future become smarter, connected and automated, the way drivers and passengers interact inside those cars will also become smarter, connected and automated. The freedom of driving a car yourself is likely to give way to freedom of not having to drive at all.

Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and director of research of CTA, predicted at the 2016 Tech Trends to Watch session on January 3 that the first fully autonomous vehicle will be commercially available by 2020 and sales of such vehicles will reach one million units by 2030. By 2045, half of all vehicles sold will be fully autonomous.

“The industry is coming together to make this happen,” said DuBravac.

GM CEO and Chairwoman Mary Barra, who gave a keynote on the future of personal mobility, said in a recent blog titled “The Year Detroit Takes on Silicon Valley” that 2016 will be “a pivotal year in reimagining how people will get from Point A to Point B.” “I have no doubt the auto industry will change more in the next 5-10 years than it has in the past 50,” said Barra in her keynote on January 6. Two days earlier, GM announced a strategic alliance with Lyft and will invest $500 million in the rideshare company to jointly develop a network of on-demand autonomous vehicles. GM has since invested in another car hailing platform Sidecar and recently launched its own car sharing program – Maven.

Ford Motor CEO Mark Fields said at the company’s press conference on January 5 that 2016 will be a revolutionary year for the auto industry with a lot of technology breakthroughs, and Ford plans to lead the way and eventually become an automobile & mobility company. Kia Motors announced a goal to commercialize autonomous cars by 2030, while Mercedes-Benz was awarded autonomous driving test licenses in the State of Nevada for three New E-Class standard-production vehicles.

Start-up Faraday Future took the wraps off its FFZERO1 concept on January 4. The California EV formally announced its strategic partnership with LeTV, the Chinese internet company founded by Jia Yueting, who has personally invested in FF. The two partners will jointly develop vehicles and share technologies for future mobility needs. LeTV plans to unveil its own Super Car at the Beijing Auto Show in April.

The consensus was clear in Sin City: personal mobility is being redefined and different industries are coming together to make this happen, just like DuBravac pointed out.

The only question that remains is who – the traditional automakers like GM and Ford or newcomers like FF and LeTV – will lead the way.

Barra, in her blog, said that “We (the traditional automakers) will lead the transformation of our industry.” Asked why she thought so, Barra told CBU/CAR after her keynote that they and in particular GM have the advantages such as scale, rich history vehicle electrification, segment-leading and first in the industry in delivering affordable, mass-market long-range EVs with the Chevrolet Bolt.

“When you look at the technical capabilities that the company (GM) has, the integration, the autonomous features we already have, we are well positioned and we are going to move fast,” said Barra.

But Nick Sampson, senior vice president in charge of R&D and product development at FF, disagrees. While he believes that there is no doubt that there will be some traditional OEMs that will make the transformation and change their businesses to meet the needs of the customers going forward, not all of them will.

“Many of the traditional OEMs are just too stuck in their ways and have too much of a legacy behind them to do things in a certain way,” Sampson told CBU/CAR in an interview after the FFZERO1 unveiling. “They have too much inertia to even make that change quick enough.”

Sampson used the disappearance of traditional players such as Nokia and Motorola in the phone industry, something no one would have guessed 10 years ago, to make his point.

“The ‘Apple’ of the auto industry will come from the new players,” said Sampson.

Who is right? Barra or Sampson? Only time will tell.

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