CES 2023 Shies Away From Autonomous Driving Technology

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It used to be that the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was a mecca for autonomous driving technology. Every year, dozens of companies flocked to the desert to flaunt their latest geewizardry on the world stage. No more. In an email to CleanTechnica, Bloomberg says CES 2023 is missing all the usual hoopla about autonomy as companies concentrate on technologies that are available now, not some indefinite point in the future, and have at least a chance of actually making money.

“There’s no question that there’s been a shift,” says Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association. “The Biden administration has focused more on electric vehicles than they have on autonomous.” The president doesn’t determine what the private market does, and it’s not clear that’s really why the trend has changed, but what is clear is that the autonomous driving hype has fizzled a bit just as the EV sprint picks up. The Ram Revolution electric pickup concept from Stellantis is featured at CES 2023. Foxconn-backed Lordstown Motors will show its Endurance plug-in pickup. Volkswagen brought its ID.7 electric sedan to Las Vegas this year and Volvo introduced its EX90 seven-passenger electric SUV to showgoers as well. For its part, Hyundai also has a major presence at this year’s show.

As for autonomy, instead of robot rides aimed at taking us anywhere, the star of the show is likely to be the John Deere autonomous tractor that promises to lighten the load on farmers by tilling the fields with no actual farmer doing the driving. “It’s sexy realism,” said Gary Silberg, a global partner and head of the automotive practice for consultant KPMG. “There are great toys out there and it’s going to be awesome, but we’ve got to be real about how we’re going to use them.”

Pushing the trend toward this newfound pragmatism is the mountain of money automakers have committed to take on Tesla in the emerging electric vehicle market. KPMG estimates global automakers are making a half-trillion-dollar bet on electric vehicles. With that kind of money on the line, there’s not much appetite for pouring billions into autonomous vehicles every year with little hope of a return any time soon.

Autonomous Driving Is Years Away

“People are realizing that the market for large scale adoption of AVs is still quite a few years away because the technology is just not mature enough,” says Sam Abuelsamid, principal e-mobility analyst for the Guidehouse Insights consulting firm. “The profits are almost certainly not going to be there in this decade.” A new survey from KPMG of 500 global auto executives finds that a third of automotive industry executives don’t see autonomous vehicles being commercially available before 2030.

With only so much money to spend, executives are putting resources into electric cars instead of autonomous vehicles. “When we asked these same questions last year, it was all rainbows and butterflies,” KPMG’s Silberg said. “But now it’s no longer theoretical and you see this realism.”

Private money also is getting real. The days of dazzling deep-pocketed venture capitalists with your whiz-bang display at CES are over, Abuelsamid said. “We’re beyond the stage where there’s easy VC money to be had. The investment community has decided ‘we’re not going to put any more money into “self-driving cars” because we don’t see it as a near-term growth business.’”

Carmakers have begun redeploying the capital they spent on self-driving research into automated features that promise a quicker return, Bloomberg says. After taking a $2.7 billion write-down on its Argo investment, Ford is shifting its focus to driver assistance features such as its hands-free Blue Cruise system that car buyers are willing to pay for.

The industry is turning inward and trying to revolutionize the cockpit with technology drivers can download to their car’s on-board computer. Automakers are looking to offer an a la carte menu of features such as horsepower upgrades and dashboard gaming systems, features they believe could generate double-digit profit margins.

Stellantis and Amazon will each have displays at CES showing how connected cars will transform the in-vehicle experience. Volvo and Qualcomm will jointly show how they are revolutionizing the cockpit with infotainment and safety systems. Much of that technology, such as sensors that detect occupants in a vehicle, first appeared in self-driving car prototypes. “The big step,” Abuelsamid said, “is that a lot of the technologies we’ve been seeing at the show over the years are now migrating into areas that are becoming actual products that will launch over the next couple years.”

Putting Autonomous Tech On The Back Burner

One of the reasons automakers are turning away from self-driving features is the chill coming from governments and regulators. It all came to a head recently when a Tesla Model S driving on the Oakland Bay Bridge suddenly swerved and slowed nearly to a stop in the middle of rush hour traffic. The driver said the car was operating in “Full Self Driving” mode.

The California legislature has just passed a new law that prohibits California dealers and manufacturers from “deceptively naming or marketing” a car as “self-driving” if it’s only equipped with partial automation features that still require human drivers to pay attention and handle driving chores themselves.

The legislative summary of the bill says, “Many manufacturers offer level 2 features and promote them as a selling point. Hence, it is easy for the average consumer to believe that based on unclear naming, advertising, or marketing, they are purchasing a vehicle with fully autonomous features when the vehicle can only perform functions similar to autopilot or cruise control.

“When a consumer purchases a vehicle, vehicle upgrade, or software update they believe is changing the automation level of their vehicle, the consumer may pay less attention to monitoring the vehicle while operating or may use the feature in an unsafe and unintended way. This can have dangerous consequences, including increased accidents on California roads or death.”

With a mandate like that, coupled with a full investigation being conducted by NHTSA into the safety of Tesla’s vaunted FSD technology, it is little wonder that the industry wants to dial back its push to make autonomous driving robotaxis and get back to the business of selling cars at a profit.

That’s not to say cars that operate as virtual horizontal elevators aren’t possible in the future, but the auto industry today is more interested in how it is going to recoup its nearly half-trillion-dollar investment in electric cars with products that are ready to come to market now, not a decade from now. That change in thinking is apparent at CES 2023 this year.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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