Weekly Brief: Autonomous vehicles dominate the headlines at CES 2015

In this week’s Brief: The International Consumer Electronics Show, Audi, LG, Android Wear, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, BMW, Samsung, Hyundai, Keyfree, Android Auto, Pioneer, Apple CarPlay, Parrot, JVC Kenwood, VW, MirrorLink, OnStar, Dunkin’ Donuts, Priceline.com, RetailMeNot, Entertainment Book, Agnik, Progressive, The Hartford, Metlife and Kemper.

The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas serves as a perennial bellwether for the coming year in electronics. If you see something debuted or demoed here, it’s a pretty sure thing you’ll see it in a much bigger way on store shelves and city sidewalks soon. The latest mobile phones. Wearable devices. Gaming consoles. You name it.

All of which begs the question exactly what was going on at CES 2015, as self-driving cars ran amuck over the headlines and exhibition floors of the Las Vegas Convention Center, even though fully self-driving cars are years from hitting the streets in anything but test fashion. The most optimistic forecasts place self-driving cars being street-ready by the end of the decade. More realistic is 2025, given slow development cycles and technological and regulatory hurdles.

Nonetheless, there was Audi’s R&D Chief Ulrich Hackenberg at one of the best attended press conferences at CES 2015 showing off the Audi A7, which in showstopping fashion had driven 500 miles from San Francisco to Las Vegas without a single driver intervention (a journalist from Wired tagged along and has a good write up of the delightful monotony of driving a self-driving car here). Hackenberg finished the A7’s journey to CES 2015 by steering it up onto the stage using an LG smartwatch that harnessed Android Wear.

Next came Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes-Benz, backlit by a screen celebrating “The Freedom of Mobility” as he pulled the wrapping off the F015, Mercedes’ first fully autonomous self-driving concept car (it’s an electric vehicle to boot). Zetsche called the car “Luxury in Motion” and revealed how the inside of the car features four swiveling lounge chairs perfectly suited for group chat, idle musing, sleeping. The connected vehicle features eye-tracking and voice commands to make a functioning human being even less necessary.

Then there was Ford, which, in addition to showing off its retooled Sync 3 (see our coverage of Sync 3 here), spotlighted its Ford Fusion Hybrid. The self-driving car fuses LiDAR sensors that capture the car’s surroundings with advanced algorithms that can help it anticipate how those surroundings will act (how pedestrians will move, for instance, or how a car might swerve or stay steady). Ford said the vehicle is currently being road tested.

A record 10 carmakers appeared at this year’s show, confirming that CES has become a new age auto show of sorts. Back in 2007, Ford was the first and only. The growth since then is a testament to the fact that cars are one of today’s hottest mobile/connected devices, and even though fully self-driving cars may still be more concept than reality for everyday consumers, autonomous and semi-autonomous features are increasingly showing up in today’s cars.

Consider self-parking. At CES 2015, BMW took over the top of a parking garage to show off its new Remote Valet Parking Assistant, which it was demoing in the BMW i3 self-driving concept car. Remote Valet works in conjunction with the Samsung Gear S smartwatch and an Android-based app that allows a driver to engage the system. The app also displays car stats, from charge level to internal temp. With one tap, the i3 sets off to find a spot in any parking garage on its own. With another tap, the car pulls out of a parking spot and delivers itself back to the watch-wearer’s side.

Inside the Convention Center, BMW also showed off its new app store, the ConnectedDrive Store, which we wrote about in our last brief of 2014.

Continuing on the smartwatch train, Hyundai showcased a production-ready augmented reality head-up display (HUD) that links to a wearable band. The band vibrates when the Lane Departure Warning System is activated or when the car is about to unexpectedly enter the driver’s lane and is a heart rate monitor that can notify 911 if a driver’s heart rate changes rapidly. Hyundai also showcased a Blue Link Smartwatch app available to new 2015 Hyundai owners that enables a bevy of voice-activated features, from remote lock-unlock to roadside assistance to remote engine start/stop.

Keyfree debuted a similar solution for the aftermarket. Keyfree costs $199 plus installation for a “Press to Start” button in the dashboard that communicates wirelessly via Bluetooth with the user’s smartphones (and potentially smartwatch in the future). Keyfree says that drivers can share their virtual keys with family and friends and can even use the technology to rent the car out without physically handing off keys. Sounds like a potential safety nightmare to us, but Keyfree assures that it’s backed up by military-grade digital security.

Want Android Auto or Apple CarPlay? Now you can buy it on the aftermarket. Pioneer displayed three aftermarket devices at CES 2015 with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration. All three devices fall under Pioneer’s NEX line (AVH-4100NEX, AVIC-8100NEX and AVIC-7100NEX), which range from $700 to $1400 suggested retail and will hit the market in early 2015.   

Parrot also demonstrated a new aftermarket head unit, the RNB 6, with Android Auto and CarPlay integration. So too did JVC Kenwood with the Kenwood DDX9902S.   

VW announced that it has embraced CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink as well and will make them available later this year in the American and European markets. VW also demoed its Park Assist solution, which drives into garages semi-automatically and a Digital Key solution that turns the smartphone into a car key.

OnStar debuted AtYourService, a location-based service that integrates information about nearby retailers and merchants (plus some coupons) into the OnStar platform. OnStar has signed initial relationships with partners like Dunkin’ Donuts and Priceline.com and digital coupon providers RetailMeNot and Entertainment Book. OnStar plans to roll out AtYourService in the U.S. and Canada this year.

Finally, the world continued to spin outside of Las Vegas, believe it or not, and delivered an interesting news item on the insurance telematics front: data analytics company Agnik has launched the Connected Insurance Program, which allows users to choose usage-based insurance packages from any of … wait for it … 19 major insurance carriers. Progressive, The Hartford, Metlife, Kemper, the list goes on.

Remember the days when insurance telematics providers struggled to get even a single insurance carrier onboard?

Users qualify by driving at least 50 miles with an Agnik connected car product, whether it be one of its aftermarket onboard devices, smartphone apps or automotive OEM head-unit integrated solutions. After that, the participating insurance carriers will send the car owner a quote for the insurance policy, and the car owner will select the offer that he or she likes the most. Easy as that.

How times have changed.

The Weekly Brief is a round-up of the week’s top telematics news, combining TU analysis with information from industry press releases.

Andrew Tolve is a regular TU contributor.

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