Weekly Brief: 2019 Will Show Us Whether Driveless Transport is Really Upon Us

A week from now, starting January 8, about 200,000 industry professionals, 4,400 exhibiting companies and god knows how many self-driving cars will arrive in Las Vegas for the biggest event of the year, the Consumer Electronics Show 2019.

Do we know what to expect in Vegas? Yes and no. Before their Christmas naps, PR departments went into overdrive hyping some of the products that will debut and the exhibits that will arrest our attention at CES 2019. We know, for example, that Audi will debut a car whose cockpit is a drive-in movie theater, thus answering the age-old question of what humans will do when robots become our chauffeurs: numb our minds on movie stars and reality TV.

Honda will unveil an autonomous off-road work vehicle and a new Safe Swarm concept, which harnesses vehicle-to-everything technology so that vehicles can talk to each other and their surroundings to create “a more enjoyable and collision-free society.” Suggesting that V2X technology can take our roads from their current collision-addled state to crash-free is a bold and frankly totally untenable claim but it will be interesting to see what Honda has in the works nonetheless.

Bosch will showcase a V2X solution as well, plus a driverless electric shuttle with integrated services that will hum about the parking lot outside. It won’t be the only one. Last year 12 robo-cars, headlined by the Lyft Aptiv partnership, crawled around the parking lot and down the Strip. Expect even more this year, as everyone clamors to get a ride into the future.

Will there be additional surprises in store for us in Vegas? I’m sure there will be. If nothing else, the last few years at CES have turned into an exercise in extravagant publicity and promotion. This is especially true for carmakers as they seek to rebrand themselves as tech companies on wheels. Teasing a new car or a connected service ahead of time diminishes the ‘Wow’ factor, so surprises are a given. This is Vegas we’re talking about after all. Who knows, a week from now I may be ogling over the next big revolution in connected mobility? I’m not betting on it.

As I sit here looking ahead to 2019 I can’t help but reflect on 2018 and think, There aren’t many surprises left in the bag folks. It’s been a decade now since Google launched Waymo. In that decade connected car services have moved from the fringe to the mainstream, fancy infotainment screens now adorn almost every new car, advanced driver assistance systems are a standard feature on mid-trims and higher, and robo-cars have morphed from sci-fi fantasy to a global market that’s projected to be worth $54Bn in 2019 and $556Bn by 2026. If you find yourself thunderstruck by anything at CES 2019, you probably haven’t been keeping up with the headlines.

Indeed, if 2018 taught us anything, it’s that the time for hype, promises and audacious declarations has ended and the time for actually proving stuff on the street has arrived. All year long Waymo hyped that it would become the first company to launch a commercial robo-taxi service. To its credit, it met the deadline, which is a significant accomplishment in and of itself, but the service that it launched is so conservative and limited in scope that it shows just how far robo-taxis have to go before they come anywhere near viability.

That’s why I don’t care about any of the fancy new drive-in movie theater cockpits or concept cars at CES 2019. I don’t care about the carmaker CEOs who give blustery keynotes. What I care about is how quickly or slowly Waymo decides to scale its service in the months that follow. I’m interested in what GM Cruise’s robo-taxi service looks like, if it ends up launching as GM has promised. I’m interested in what Uber’s robo-taxi service looks like as well, given that its CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has suggested it will be charging for rides in autonomous vehicles by 2019. I’m interested to see if any of these services suffer a catastrophic setback, like a hit pedestrian or fatal crash and I’m interested in how quickly cities and carmakers start to adopt V2V and V2X technology as the 5G wave sweeps across the world in 2019.

I’m interested in these things because they will tell us a lot about how the connected car and autonomous vehicle revolution will play out in the future. Are we on the edge of a monster wave that’s about to overflow everything we know, imminently, or is this more akin to a slowly rising sea level that will flood us all eventually but will take fifty years to do so? How 2019 shakes out will tell us everything we need to know.

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