Weekly Brief: Voice Assistants Were CES’ Stars, AVs its Punchline

Weekly Brief: Voice Assistants Were CES’ Stars, AVs its Punchline

Autonomous vehicles were out in force in Las Vegas last week for the Consumer Electronics Show.

Showgoers who opened the Lyft app got a message asking if they wanted to ride in a robocar instead. Through its partnership with Aptiv, Lyft had a fleet of 30 autonomous BMW 540i deployed for the show’s duration. Uber didn’t have robotaxis on offer but it did display a Bell Nexus flying taxi concept that it says will be on the road and in the sky by 2020. Then there was Daimler’s new self-driving truck, Mercedes-Benz’s fully autonomous concept car, the Vision Urbanetic, Bosch’s driverless shuttle bus and Hyundai’s walking car concept vehicle, whose four wheels transform into legs so the vehicle can autonomously elevate and stomp over debris during emergency responses. Then there was BMW’s self-driving motorcycle, a world first that showgoers could watch zip around the parking lot outside.

None of this should come as a surprise. Autonomous vehicles have become so pervasive at CES over the last few years that it’s started to feel as much like a car show as a gizmo and gadget extravaganza. As carmakers race to keep pace with a society that is becoming increasingly urban and tech-obsessed, they’re eager to rebrand themselves as the coolest, most cutting-edge mobile device makers in the world. Your smartphone can take selfies and check in on Foursquare. Your car can drive itself. Beat that Apple and Samsung!

Yet there was something in the air that was different about autonomous vehicles at CES this year. Something that bordered on boredom. AVs aren’t the shiny next thing anymore. They’re becoming real, and the reality isn’t exactly going smoothly. An Uber AV killed a pedestrian last year. Tesla’s AutoPilot produces a fatality once every couple months. Waymo won the race to commercialize robotaxis last December, an accomplishment that was supposed to change everything — a real robotaxi service that anyone can use! — but in fact looks like nothing more than an ongoing pilot. The cars go slowly and take forever to turn left across traffic. The only people who can hitch a ride in them are the same people who were already in the Waymo Early Rider pilot.

Showgoers in Vegas were clearly jaundiced toward such schemes. When Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang took the stage for a keynote, he promised the crowd he wouldn’t prattle on about his company’s autonomous car technology but would instead discuss Nvidia’s revolutionary new graphics processor for the gaming industry. The crowd gave him a rapturous round of applause.

The real stars of the show this year weren’t cars but voice assistants. Google left its Waymo fleet in Arizona and instead showed up with a legion of employees decked out in all white jumpsuits, white jackets and white beanies with the words “Hey Google” emblazoned on the front. It was tough to walk anywhere on the exhibition floor without running into one of these adorable minions and hearing them talk about the wonders of Google Assistant. Google painted the town with “Hey Google” billboards as well. Amazon answered by hanging “Works With Alexa” signs on the many products at the show that integrated its voice assistant, including smart TVs and smart refrigerators and smart showers and smart clocks and kitchen mixers and soundbars and speakers. Amazon announced at the show that consumers have purchased 100 million devices with Alexa onboard. Google revealed that its Assistant is on pace to be integrated into 1 billion devices by the end of January. Granted many of these will be Android phones but still it was impossible to leave CES this year without the impression that voice assistants will soon be everywhere and in everything, listening and responding whether we want them to or not, including inside our cars.

A pair of electronics companies debuted new gadgets at CES that can bring Google Assistant into your vehicle. The Roav Bolt plugs into your cigarette lighter port, connects to the stereo via Bluetooth and lets you control everything from your music to your navigation to your messages with your voice. JBL’s Link Drive does the same. All it will cost you is $50 or $60, depending on which device you choose.

Voice commands are nothing new in cars, of course. But having a super-smart voice assistant is, and it points to the more likely future for vehicles in the coming decade — one in which tech purportedly enhances and simplifies the driving experience, rather than replacing them entirely. We’ll soon talk to our cars and they’ll talk back. We’ll do the majority of the driving and they’ll provide smart guidance and advanced driver assistance. I mentioned Nvidia earlier. The company debuted a new platform at CES called Drive AutoPilot that allows any carmaker to integrate self-driving capabilities into its cars. Think of it like Tesla’s AutoPilot but a little smarter and way more universal. Nvidia’s CEO Jensen Huang called it “supervised self-driving” in his keynote. Mobileye’s CEO Amnon Shashua said in his keynote that his company is shooting for a similar goal, harnessing driver assistance to eliminate most traffic fatalities in the coming years. My colleague Stephen Lawson has more on Nvidia’s platform and more on Mobileye’s plans.

This stuff is coming fast. As for flying taxis and self-driving motorcycles, don’t hold your breath.

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