Weekly Brief: Pandemic’s CES has Virtually Nothing to Shout About

Automobiles have been a disrupting force at the Consumer Electronics Show for the past five years.

What was once an event primarily dedicated to TVs and telephones became a playground for self-driving cars, flying taxis and fancy in-car infotainment systems. Last year’s CES 2020 saw show goers able to take their pick of self-driving transportation: an autonomous Lyft powered by Aptiv or an autonomous Toyota Prius powered by Yandex.

A couple months later, the pandemic struck and asserted itself as the disrupting force of all disrupting forces. So much so that one year later, there were no physical cars, phones or TVs in Las Vegas last week for CES 2021. In fact, there was no physical CES 2021 at all. For the first time since the event was founded in 1967, the Consumer Electronics Show went fully virtual.

Carmakers still showed up, although it was difficult to be a disrupting force through the format of pre-recorded videos. General Motors tried its best. Days before the show started, the carmaker unveiled a new logo with a lowercase ‘m’ that calls to mind an electric plug. GM CEO Mary Barra then gave the opening keynote at CES 2021, in which she pledged an all-electric future for her company powered by “a vision of zero emissions”. She showed off a host of electric vehicles, including the all-electric GMC Hummer (due out in 2022), an electric Chevy pickup truck, a new electric crossover (the Bolt EUV) and a flagship electric sedan, the Cadillac Celestiq. This model features an “electrochromic” glass roof that can be dimmed in different quadrants, depending on how much of the sky each passenger wishes to behold.

On the autonomous front, GM unveiled an electric Halo autonomous pod concept that has no pedals or steering wheel and teased an electric flying taxi concept. The latter earned the carmaker lots of headlines in the press because it marks GM’s first foray into the highly speculative and somewhat dubious industry of electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicles (eVTOLs). Uber was famous for peddling a vision of ride-hailing vehicles that could take flight at the first whiff of earth-bound traffic. Last year it ditched its flying taxi division Elevate at a huge loss. Nonetheless, GM took CES 2021 as an opportunity to reveal a rendering of a four-rotor self-flying Cadillac pod. The eVTOL will be powered by a 90-kWh battery and will exceed, in theory, a top speed of 50mph.

BMW also tried to make a splash at CES 2021 around its all-new BMW iDrive system, which will be officially released later in 2021. For a preview, BMW released an expletive-laced four-minute video of two BMWs talking trash to each other, a 2001 BMW 7 Series and the all-new BMW iX electric crossover. The video is as strange as it is light on specifics. What we’re left with at the end is the dim understanding that a new, more intelligent iDrive is coming this year. The intelligent personal assistant will always be connected to the Internet. It will be able to react to voice and gesture and provide natural and emotional reactions alongside contextual awareness.

The only other automotive highlight from the show was construction vehicle company Caterpillar. It reminded everyone that, while lots of start-ups are running small autonomous pilots with sweet, docile, LiDAR-buttoned toasters on wheels, Caterpillar already has a tested fleet of self-driving mining machines operating under extreme conditions around the world. The fleet includes the CAT 797F dump truck, which weighs 285 tons with nothing inside of it and can haul up to 400 tons of mining material – all without a driver behind the wheel.

Imagine if Caterpillar, instead of showing a video of an autonomous yellow dump truck, had rolled a real CAT 797F onto the stage at CES. The truck is the size of a 3,000-square-foot, two-story-tall house. Now that would have been a disruption.

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