“Most important is how this technology is going to serve society … It’s about the freedom to move—whether it’s across the country, across the town, or simply across the room.”-Bob Carter, Executive Vice President of Sales for Toyota
If you’ve been wondering how the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has been shifting from a gadget convention to a must-watch auto show, the quote above is your first clue. As technology innovates faster than society can adopt it, one buzzword phrase seems to continually remain in the forefront: Mobility Solutions.
When the automobile made its impact on society over a century ago, it presented a revolutionary alternative to the way human beings transported goods, services, and themselves. And as this new technology became a normal part of everyday life, the experience of it became focused on just that—the experience. How a vehicle moves, how it handles, how it performs, how it feels.
However, as the next major technological breakthrough captured human attention—the computer—the industry faced yet another paradigm shift. A global refocusing on the very basic action of transportation, but repackaged as a user-friendly, on-demand mobility service.
Connectivity is Key
What does this mean? Well, as the world grows ever-smaller through instant messaging services, live streaming, and social media, connectivity becomes the name of the game.
Connectivity breeds a desire for products and services that are not just useful and convenient, but also universal and inclusive. Something everyone can use at the touch of a finger, with barely any effort or thought. And as we become feverishly more attached to this instant accessibility, we demand to see it in every aspect of our lives. That includes during the time we spend moving from place to place.
Automakers Ride the Wave
Say what you will about the auto industry when it comes to its history with corporate attitudes, environmental sustainability, and safety protocols, but this is one innovation investment they’re not willing to miscalculate. From on-board WiFi to autonomous driving assistance, the world’s automakers hear consumer cries for more connectivity and are responding with alacrity.
More safety bells? You got it. Better infotainment? Why, of course! On-demand transportation? Absolutely.
So if you thought the Consumer Electronics Show was just a nerdy convention of eggheads gushing about computer specs way over your head—think again. Because with every swipe of your finger on that ultra-responsive, high-res touchscreen of yours, you open Pandora’s Box juuust a little wider. The future is coming—and fast.
Here are a few innovations we saw at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show, both from major players and less recognizable names, that we feel present a unique perspective on where the new wave of mobility solutions is headed.
Toyota’s Guardian 4.0
As Toyota’s VP of Sales Bob Carter implied in this article’s opening quote, the role of technology is changing—especially when it comes to the transportation sector. It’s not just about fun and convenience anymore. It’s about serving people. Fine-tuning the interactions between humans and computers so that we can work together for the greater good.
Whether that sentiment makes you roll your eyes or feel warm and fuzzy inside is of no consequence. This altruistic reasoning suits automakers just fine, and they’re surely gonna roll with it.
Toyota, at least, seems to take the responsibility quite seriously.
Beyond announcing its commitment to have an electrified option on almost all Toyota and Lexus models by 2025, the company also doubled down on its autonomous technology. Debuting at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show was Toyota’s TRI-P4 self-driving test vehicle. Based on the fifth-gen Lexus LS flagship sedan, this vehicle will join the company’s automated test fleet in an effort to better develop Toyota’s two-track autonomy research projects, labeled “Chauffeur” and “Guardian.”
Chauffeur refers to Level 5 autonomy. Or, a vehicle that can self-drive anywhere, anytime, in any condition, with absolutely no driver input. Guardian is a more digestible (and currently realistic) offshoot. It is driver assistance technology that acts as a safety net, using its lightning-fast processing to react to dangerous on-road conditions when a human can’t. Carter describes it as a “co-pilot,” who can help assist a driver by “accelerating, braking, or steering to avoid an accident.”
This kind of smart safety tech is not particularly new to us, but Toyota’s HUGE investment into it is. In addition to using the TRI-P4 to refine this system, the automobile company—now defining itself as a transportation company—has invested BILLIONS of dollars in Robotics, developing software and hardware that addresses everything from global transportation systems to medical mobility solutions.
It’s worth mentioning that Toyota believes so strongly in its Guardian software that it is offering it to its competitors. This kind of shared knowledge is vital to building the necessary infrastructure to get this kind of technology out of the lab and into consumer hands.
Omron Forpheus Ping-Pong Robot
If you’re wondering what the hell a giant ping-pong playing robot has to do with future mobility solutions, bear with me. While Forpheus isn’t a new invention—he showed up at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show, too—he has received some interesting upgrades. Besides, it’s the software behind this unique machine that we’re really interested in unpacking.
The fifth-gen Forpheus has more AI-capabilities and motion sensing than previous versions, allowing it to better predict and respond to human movements. In this case, that applies to ping-pong serves but in a larger context, it can have much more human-helping applications.
“Forpheus is Guinness Book of World Records holder as a table tennis tutor robot,” says Mike Chen, Director at Omron Automation, in an interview with Tech Vlogger Danny Winget. “It is not optimized for reducing the number of shots (which is winning), it is actually optimized to increase the level of practice that a player gets. This really embodies our mission and our vision for robotics and AI to improve human skills. … What you experience with Forpheus is exactly what’s being used in the real world in factory automation, energy management, healthcare, and automotives today. This is how that technology is happening.”
Let’s face it: before we ever go whizzing around in autonomous vehicles, it’s much more likely that we’ll be working alongside them or having them deliver things to us.
Omron’s robots are among the front lines of that first wave of automation. The company’s line of mobile robots are self-navigating autonomous vehicles already being used in warehouses, factories, and laboratories. They can maneuver around obstacles and people, across virtually any surface, and even manage their own power and self-charging operations.
In the roll-out of global mobility solutions, Omron’s innovations will revolutionize manufacturing inefficiencies. But we can also see the “tutoring” software of Forpheus applied to things like future employee training and driving instruction.
Pods, So Many Pods.
With 5G technology, electric vehicles, and autonomous driving at the forefront of most auto-related innovations right now, one noticeable trend at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show was the extensive amount of driverless pods.
Rocking a serious living-room-on-wheels vibe, these breadbox-shaped shuttles might be strange, but they represent another wave of autonomy—public people-movers. Before autonomous technology becomes accepted enough (and affordable enough) to be a part of every consumer vehicle, it will have to earn its stripes in the public sector. Besides, this is a savvy avenue to reducing the total number of vehicles on the road.
Major components-supplier, Bosch, debuted a particularly interesting concept, as the company predicts these vehicles will comprise their own market segment in coming years.
Bosch’s all-electric shuttle features a futuristic, bright and airy design with seating for four people, arranged so that all parties are facing one another. The pod employs state-of-the-art connectivity and infotainment—even boasting a camera that can detect spills and gum stuck to a seat. Perhaps most interesting though, is that Bosch is also investing in developing specific software for this shuttle. Software that would allow users to request and book a people-moving pod via smartphone, at a price that lowers as more travelers hop on board.
While Bosch’s concept was one of the more developed at the show, several other manufacturers seemed eager to throw their hats into this ring as well. Mercedes showed off its wildly Sci-Fi-esque URBANETIC passenger/cargo module. BMW revealed its iNEXT “Sport Activity Vehicle,” with swiveling captain’s chairs that are (marginally) cooler than those of a classic Chevy Mark III conversion van. Japanese company, Aisin, debuted an automated limo that sported a similar “groovy meeting” vibe. While the Denso Urban Moves concept vehicle took things one step further with a Millennial-inspired, office-on-wheels design. Then there was the Swedish Einride T-Pod, ZF e.Go Mover, Continental CUbE, AEV Robotics MVS, and—-well, you get it. There were a LOT of pods.
Qualcomm Vehicle Communication
As 5G technology looms on the horizon, many companies are envisioning the way in which it will accelerate the self-driving agenda.
Telecommunications company, Qualcomm, demonstrated its CV2X chipset at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show on Ford and Audi vehicles. Short for “Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything” communication, the CV2X system will allow driverless vehicles to better navigate tricky and unpredictable scenarios—a major hurdle to rolling out full autonomy.
By communicating with other vehicles, pedestrians, the 5G network, and surrounding infrastructure, the system can conquer things like determining right-of-way, avoiding pedestrians, and maneuvering no-line-of-sight conditions. Beyond safety, the technology can help eliminate traffic (and stress!) and can be used in both current and future vehicles. Eventually, the CV2X will be able to “see” the smartphone in a pedestrian’s pocket, guiding the vehicle to take proper action.
Much of the technology seen at the Consumer Electronics Show will never actually be seen beyond the convention. An $800 self-driving suitcase and a cooing robotic stuffed animal that whines until it’s cuddled might not garner the consumer base their inventors hoped for, but cutting-edge mobility solutions tailored to the tech-hungry masses? Price it right, and We the People will jump on board.