Toyota, Ford, Aptiv, Baidu Lead Crowd Pushing Mobility at CES

In the past, the tech conference CES has primarily highlighted consumer electronics and other cool gadgets, but as automakers continue their quest to be taken seriously by the tech industry, the Las Vegas show held every January has increasingly become the venue of choice for car companies that want to show off their latest autonomous and electric vehicle developments.

This year, the mobility sector had its largest presence at CES yet. Self-driving tech was well-represented in the CES innovation awards, and news announcements from the sector were plentiful. Here, we’ve rounded up five of the most significant mobility advances from the show; expect more self-driving news next week at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show.

An entire atrium at the Detroit show has been devoted to AutoMobili-D, an exhibit where 57 mobility startups will display their work and mingle with potential partners and funders. At NAIAS 2018, we’ll also see a big push by Michigan politicos and industry boosters to reframe the Motor City as the Mobility City.

Here are some of the biggest autonomous vehicle announcements so far from CES, in no particular order:

Toyota unveils new partnerships and mobility services: The Japanese automaker has been working steadily to bolster its self-driving offerings, and the company outlined what TechCrunch called “a major shift in business.”

Like other carmakers in the industry, Toyota has decided to go all in on mobility services instead of trying to create a separate entity to develop autonomous tech. At the show, Toyota debuted the e-Palette concept car, a “small shuttle with a modular interior that can be changed depending on whether it’s used for ride-hailing, small cargo transport and on-demand delivery, or any other mobility uses.” (Black Mirror fans might recognize the dystopian version of a similar vehicle in the new season of the show. In the episode “Crocodile,” an autonomous pizza delivery van bumps into a pedestrian, setting off a horrific chain of events. The spooky part is that the new season of Black Mirror debuted mere days before Toyota’s announcement.) The company said it will begin testing the e-Palette for potential U.S. market viability in the early 2020s.

Toyota also announced it would partner with a number of companies, including Uber, Amazon, and Pizza Hut, on the e-Palette Alliance, a consortium that will help guide Toyota’s transition to a mobility services company and direct how it makes use of the e-Palette platform.

Ford announces new Transportation Mobility Cloud and upcoming autonomous demos: Ford had a big footprint at CES, with CEO Jim Hackett delivering one of the event’s keynote speeches.

Marcy Klevorn, the company’s mobility manager, outlined the details of Ford’s new open, cloud-based mobility platform in a blog post. In it, she asks the reader to imagine a New York couple that has just purchased a large area rug and now must figure out how to get it home. “Now, what if this couple had the ability to hail a ride that will fit their purchase? Or what if the store’s delivery service was able to assess real-time traffic issues to reach their home at the same time they arrive, having reserved and paid for curbside parking through wireless transactions—all while avoiding any negative impact on other road users and residents?”

Through collaboration with artificial intelligence company Autonomic, Ford’s mobility cloud will coordinate things like identity verification and payment methods. Transportation modes in cities could work together, and Ford says it will optimize communications through C-V2X (cellular vehicle-to-infrastructure) technology that the company is working with Qualcomm to validate.

As described by Ford, C-V2X will enable “various technologies and applications in a city—vehicles, stoplights, signs, cyclists, and pedestrian devices—to speak to each other and share information.” The eventual goal is to have Ford’s partners, including Lyft, Postmates, and Domino’s, plug into the automaker’s autonomous fleet and use the cars for delivery or ride-hailing services.

Ford also announced that in 2018, it will expand testing of the autonomous vehicles it’sbuilding in partnership with ArgoAI; which city will host the testing is TBD.

After years of turmoil, Visteon sees mobility as the road to profitability: Speaking of going all in on mobility, Tier 1 automotive supplier Visteon revealed more details about its DriveCore platform as part of its CES press push.

A few weeks ago, we reported on DriveCore’s testing at the American Center for Mobility, only seven miles down the road from Visteon’s Van Buren Township, MI, headquarters. Autonomous vehicles are part of a new identity for Visteon, which spun out of Ford in 2000, has struggled to find its footing over the years, experiencing high executive turnover, declaring bankruptcy, and dramatically scaling back some of its businesses along the way.

In 2015, Sachin Lawande left the tech industry to take over at Visteon’s helm. He quickly set about reorganizing the company’s technology strategy and workforce, and on executing on his vision of an automated future. So, what is DriveCore? We spoke to Upton Bowden, who handles advanced technology development for Visteon, to learn more.

Bowden described DriveCore as “an end-to-end autonomous vehicle platform.” It has three components. Compute is a modular, scalable hardware platform supporting Nvidia, Freescale, and Qualcomm, with other processors to come later; it can be adapted to all levels of autonomous driving (Level 0 is no automation and Level 5 is fully autonomous with no human driver). Runtime is “in-vehicle middleware” enabling sensor fusion and “providing a secure framework for applications and algorithms to communicate in real time” that can be upgraded as driverless technology matures. And Studio is a PC-based development tool automakers can use for simulation and analysis that “allows easy integration of third-party algorithms and access to real-life sensor data.”

Upton said the OEM-agnostic DriveCore platform is intended to develop a common framework to validate the safety of autonomous vehicles and push their mass commercialization. For the first time, Visteon was joined in its CES booth by some of its partners in developing autonomous technologies, which he called a big step forward.

“In my opinion, autonomous vehicles are too big a problem to solve completely in-house,” Upton added. “If you look at suppliers, you see a lot of acquisitions and a lot of noise, but it’s hard to gamble on which one to pick. Our product works with any kind of sensor and any kind of input, so we can work with anyone in the [mobility] space without alienating potential customers.”

Aptiv (formerly Delphi) and Lyft bring autonomous taxis to the Las Vegas strip: Like Visteon, Dephi (now Aptiv) is a supplier undergoing a transformation thanks to the rise of self-driving tech. Earlier this year, Xconomy Boston’s Jeff Engel reported, Delphi spun out its powertrain business into a new company called Delphi Technologies. Aptiv houses the remainder of the company, including its efforts in autonomous vehicles, vehicle software, and electronic components. In October, Aptiv spent $400 million to buy nuTonomy, a Boston autonomous vehicle software startup.

Aptiv and partner Lyft brought eight self-driving taxis to Las Vegas and allowed CES attendees to travel to 20 local destinations by hailing them through Lyft’s app. A human driver was present in the car, Time reports, but took his hands off the wheel at the beginning of the trip and let the car drive itself. Riders could confirm their destination on a tablet mounted in the backseat. According to Time, the trip was uneventful, just as one would hope.

This marked only the second time Aptiv has allowed the public to ride in its vehicles. TechCrunch reports that the car Aptiv is using is based on a BMW 5-series with a Velodyne LiDAR unit mounted beneath the front grill instead of on the car’s roof, and other sensors that retract when the car is not in use.

Aptiv told TechCrunch to expect more public testing of its cars in 2018; time and location TBD.

China is also racing to the self-driving finish line: At this year’s show, Chinese mobility companies made it clear they’re not ceding the development of autonomous and smart vehicles to North American or European entities. The Telegraph reports that more than a quarter of the companies showing at CES this year hailed from China.

Byton, an electric vehicle startup founded by former BMW and Apple employees, debuted a car with a cutting-edge dashboard, facial recognition software, and a battery so powerful, the company said, that one charge provides enough power to drive on urban roads for a week. The company that owns Byton, Future Mobility, plans to release the car in China next year.

Baidu, essentially China’s Google, also made a couple of key announcements at CES. It debuted Apollo 2.0, its open self-driving platform that gives vehicles using Apollo the ability to go driverless on some city streets. Baidu launched a new Singapore-based $200 million mobility venture fund in partnership with Asia Mobility Services to help commercialize its self-driving platform.

Finally, Baidu will also team up with edtech company Udacity to build online courses for English-speaking and Chinese students that teach people the skills needed to build driverless technologies.

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