If you didn’t know any better, you would think the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was another auto show. Forget the latest Apple product and smart gadgets; auto companies are grabbing headlines at this year’s CES with the unveiling of their various self-driving prototype cars. Car companies like to attend CES because they see it as an ideal opportunity to reach a targeted consumer audience and share their future products even if those products are still being developed. And this year, automakers like Toyota, BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz are using CES as a platform to show off their self-driving vehicles in addition to their hydrogen fuel cell cars and car apps.
Mercedes Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche unveiled a self-driving concept car called the F 015 Luxury in Motion, which Mercedes foresees will be available around 2030. The roomy sedan has seating for four with rotating lounge chairs that allow passengers to sit facing each other. Six integrated display screens allow the passengers to digitally interact and exchange information between the car and the outside world. This supercar navigates itself, but the driver also has the option to takeover. When a person wants to drive, a steering wheel will automatically extend from the dashboard. Zetsche said, “Think about it. Most cool gadgets at CES actually consume your time. This car actually gives you more time and more space.”
Currently, Mercedes and other luxury brands already have vehicles that have basic self-driving functions such as the ability to self-brake before a collision, automatically parallel-park and stay a set distance away from other cars on the road. BMW demonstrated the self-parking feature on their concept i3 electric car, which uses four laser systems to scan 360 degrees around the area of the car when looking for a parking space. Once the car has parked itself, it will also self-lock its doors. Another feature of the parked i3 is it can be contacted via a smart watch to go pick up the driver when the person is ready. BMW hopes to permanently introduce this feature by 2020.
Toyota debuted their self-driving car last year at CES, so they announced that they would be sharing 5600 of their hydrogen fuel cell vehicle patents with any interested car company. Toyota Senior Vice President Bob Carter explained their generosity is due to the need for “a concerted effort and unconventional collaboration” between automakers in order for the first-generation of hydrogen fuel cell cars to succeed.
While the future of automobile technology seems to make driving (or the lack thereof) even more interesting, automakers also know that this kind of technology also creates new issues. In his keynote address, Ford CEO Mark Fields stated that technology only works if it is available for everyone, not just the wealthy. Another issue arising from autonomous cars concerns regulations. A special permit is needed to simply test drive these type of cars. The first car company to get a permit from the state of California to test drive an autonomous car on public roads was Audi. In 2014, Audi took their self-driving A7 for a spin using a specially licensed driver to oversee the car as it navigated itself from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas. The carmaker reported the trip as trouble free even though the A7 drove at night and in heavy rain. Another large challenge facing these cars regards data privacy issues since they collect large amounts of information as they operate. Ethical issues also arise regarding how to program a car to react when there’s an impending collision. Despite the unanswered questions, self-driving cars demonstrate that this is an exciting time in the automotive world. Like one industry expert commented, “We’re in the Wild West of autonomous vehicle law and policy.”