LAS VEGAS — Anyone who's tried to drive a cold car -- say a '57 Chevy -- while looking through a small defrosted circle in an otherwise ice-fogged windshield would have recognized the problem faced by a panel of automotive and electronics experts at the International CES here Wednesday, as they tried to envision the future of the self-driving automobile.
The panel's difficulty might have been summarized by Elmar Frickenstein, BMW's chief of EVP Electrics and Electronics. Faced with the "critical issue" of reconciling the average car's lifespan of seven years with the barely 18-month lifecycle of a consumer electronics device, as though peering through that icy windshield, Frickenstein said, "I don't see any solution." With that, he issued an appeal to the electronics industry: "We need your help."
Henry Beizh, chief technology strategist for Kia Motors, was even blunter about this disconnect between the fast-moving CE world, in which people want a new gadget every Christmas, and the slower automotive cycle, in which car-buyers expect their vehicles to last. "It's like a bad marriage," he said.
But it's looking like an arranged marriage in which neither bride nor groom has a choice.
Among the panelists were delegates from three of the many carmakers displaying their wares at this year's auto-intensive CES. They expressed pride in the "autonomous" functions that are migrating into their new models, thanks to advanced electronic technologies.
Among these, noted BMW's Frickenstein, are a multitude of in-car cameras that eliminate blind spots, monitor the driver's attention, and help with parking, among other tasks. Safety improvements include active cruise control and automatic emergency braking.
But the goal, as everyone conceded, is a car that serves as a sort of electronic chauffeur, leaving the driver, as expressed by Mark Dipko, Hyundai's director of brand and product strategy, "to take his hands off the wheel and read the paper." Dipko admitted that this consummation is still "a long ways away."
No big bang
Frickenstein said this outcome will proceed incrementally, with a car able to perform relatively simple functions like finding its own space in a parking garage, perhaps by 2020. "This is no Big Bang," he said.
Timothy Yerdon, global director of innovation and design at Visteon, dared to suggest that the entirely self-driving car might never come to pass, because it will never be as good as a human driver at coping with the unexpected on the road. He wondered if the car would realize that it's in trouble. "How do you alert the driver to take control from an autonomous driving mode?"
Kia's Beizh tossed in the almost taboo topic of cost. "How much does it cost to build an automobile that can drive itself?" he asked. "And can it be mass-produced?"
The panelists' misgivings notwithstanding, CES 2014 is clearly applying "technology push" to advanced electronics in what Yerdon called "the cockpit."