Skip to main content

Rise of the robot cars

(Image credit: Image Credit: Karsten Neglia / Shutterstock)

In the storm-drenched deserts of Nevada, no-one can hear the autonomous cars scream. The lights are off, the grid is down and CES – the show to end all technology shows – is officially switched off. #CESBlackout is underway and the burning question in auto-tech isn’t how to get your AI assisted car to order you a pizza and play the Grand Tour on a wrap-around transparent screen. The question is how do you turn the power back on when you are a foot deep in flood water, 1000 miles deep in electrical cable, and five dollars deep in questionable rubber boots from Target. 

But this is Vegas, and 5600 megawatts of casino power suction must be satisfied. So in the paddocks of CES, the driverless cars can scrub off the bath line of flood water detritus from a hazily remembered night before, and get on with their coming-of-age show. For CES is not a technology show, it is a car show, where vehicular debutantes step into the light in wildly conceived metal frocks and blink as people take pictures of them. All of the burning ideas and reckless ambition of youth are put on stage to dance briefly in the moonlight before the doors shut for another year and the car companies remember that all they really wanted to do, was sell compact SUVs and pick-ups in Detroit. 

But it is at CES, in the rarified world of edge-case technology and spec wars, that a new revolution is signalling its arrival. We all expected that robots would walk among us, but only the creators of Transformers realised that those robots would be cars. The Autobots of the future won’t come from Megatron, but little old Planet Earth. As much as we long for our robot assistants to serve us coffee with flailing limbs and unsettling walking rhythms, there really is no need for that. The planet already has 7.4 billion upright walking, semi-autonomous humanoids. None of them are made by technology companies.

Cars on the other hand are a different matter. According to Statista, global new car sales in 2017 were 79.56 million. We all need cars. We like to get about. We are also all naturally a bit lazy and prepossessed with looking at screens. So get ready for your car to turn into a giant mobile phone. You won’t just be looking at it any more, you will be sitting inside it. What does that mean? Well, the car manufacturers are starting to look like tech companies, while the tech companies are starting to look like car companies. Let’s unpack that theory a bit. 

Battery City 

Gadgets aren’t really gadgets unless they have batteries inside them somewhere. And the CES crowd loves cars with batteries. 2018 is supposed to be the year when electric cars will finally start to catch on. In 2017, India, the UK, Norway, the Netherlands, and France, among others, told the world that they will phase out gas and diesel vehicles within the next few decades. China is shifting the same way, while gas guzzling stalwarts like General Motors have announced plans to go all electric, with 18 vehicles to be available by 2023. Increasingly cheaper batteries are the key to this revolution, with the CES award for best remote control car going to Byton, a wild electric SUV launched at CES and coming to you straight out of Nanjing, China.  

Bytes on Wheels 

The Byton concept car will go into production in late 2018 and will carry you for 250 miles – no mean feat for a car that really, really wants to be your new mobile phone. When you climb into the front seat you find a giant display before you that has swallowed up the entire dashboard. Is it a touchscreen, I hear you say? Well, you can control it with our hand, your voice, your gestures and even with your face (with facial recognition). The car has its own cloud infrastructure for connecting your applications, data and devices – meaning among other things you can stream movies, hold video calls and have the car’s iHealth sensors track your vital statistics as the road rage builds.

Entertainment you are watching on your phone will – in theory – be seamlessly handed off to the car when you get in. Every interaction with the vehicle will be logged to your Byton ID and stored for your next visit to the cockpit, or the passenger seats. But Byton hasn’t gone full crazy on autonomous driving yet, with a mere Level 3 rating, meaning you still have to pay attention to the road. Updates will be served to the car over time, just like with Tesla – with feedback from users built into improvements released in the car’s OS. 

OS Wars 

The car manufacturers are leaving the mobile companies behind. Android Auto and Car Play are no longer top of the infotainment bubble. Manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz are serious about owning their own operating systems. You won’t be saying ‘Hey Google’ to their new MBUX infotainment system, it’s ‘Hey Mercedes, I’m too cold’ and the car’s heating comes on as the ambient light bathes you in shades of rapper’s delight.   

The idea is to unite hardware and operating system, much as Apple does with its phones, in order to deliver a better user experience. Audi uses Google Earth for maps, while Mercedes has opted for an integration with HERE, the former Nokia mapping company it invested in alongside Intel, BMW, and Audi. The autonomous data mapping company bought itself a large stand at CES out on the paddock, rubbing shoulders with Google and Gibson. Their vision is to use mapping to achieve pinpoint accuracy on car location, to share geolocation data across transportation systems and infrastructures, and to develop a platform largely dictated by the needs of the automotive industry, rather than the mobile and web giants. It’s a smart move and one that is reminiscent of how Apple – eventually – decided that it was better to own its own mapping platform than to rely entirely on Google. MBUX even has its own search agent, pulling up results from Yelp and integrating them into navigation and phone requests. 


CES is the first event where I have ever been offered an autonomous taxi ride. Lyft teamed up with Aptiv to give robo-taxi rides to a selection of 20 pre-programmed destinations. This is ‘Mobility-as-a-Service’, an unwelcome addition to conference buzzword bingo, and one that saw Toyota announce the launch of e-Palette, an autonomous cavity on wheels that you can convert into anything – a mobile grocery store, or when they cluster together, perhaps an impromptu autonomous festival, where the goods are all sold by friendly sensor-laden pods. Food trucks will never be the same again.   

Ride sharing is also possible in the model, which at its core is driven by, you guessed it, a cloud-based mobility service platform. Dominos and Ford have been working on autonomous pizza… deliveries. If you thought the cashier-less Amazon Go retail stores were going to put the working class out of work for good, you haven’t seen anything yet. Autonomy is good news for everyone that isn’t a professional driver, and now anyone that ever sold goods locally. 

5G Fast Forward 

What’s the point of a cloud-connected car if you can’t get any reception round the back of Walmart? Will there be dead zones, where herds of autonomous cars lurk like zombies outside abandoned petrol stations? The connected car is the new buzzword du jour in the auto industry, marrying up very closely with the ‘connected aircraft’ vision in the inflight sector. And lo it was foretold, by every senior executive to tread the CES stage, that 5G is coming – and it will part the waves of the Red Sea so we can escape to the future. 

5G is like having personal 1Gb/s wireless broadband with you wherever you go - and it will have far better coverage than the now slow 4G that was celebrated, shiny and ‘superfast’ only a few years ago. Not that we actually need any of this stuff, but technology has the habit of breeding more technology, so why not? The car needs the data to work, so why not feed it? Why not have a 5G robotic dog from Sony while you are at it? It will only cost you another £20 a month for another mobile SIM card, on top of all your other data and content subscriptions. Stupid simple, right? 

5G really will change the face of telecoms as we know it today. The mobile telecoms companies will finally have a product that they can use to clobber cable providers to death with. Residential is top of Verizon’s hitlist for 5G customers. That being said, and this being technology, almost nothing in consumer tech will support 5G for a very long time, perhaps except Wi-Fi routers sold by Verizon, and that brand new car you are planning to buy around 2020. 

Jonathan Gilbert, Director of Digital Content & Innovation at Spafax Global (opens in new tab) 

Image Credit: Karsten Neglia / Shutterstock

Jonathan Gilbert, Director of Digital Content & Innovation at Spafax Global one of the world’s leading providers of media sales, entertainment curation and content marketing.