The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week showcased the usual assortment of surprising technological innovations, from systems that use household walls as screens to door knobs that incorporate wi-fi to identify who’s knocking and to let them in without a key.
But it also highlighted the increasing role of technology in cars. More automakers than ever before participated in the annual show, demonstrating the continuing evolution of smartphone connectivity, autonomous driving, alternative fuels and other systems that are a crystal ball for the future of cars.
WEARABLE DEVICES THAT INTERACT WITH CARS: Wearable gadgets, such as Google Glass eyeglasses and the Samsung Galaxy Gear wristwatch, are “The Next Big Thing” in cars. Both BMW and Mercedes-Benz showed how so-called “smart” wearable devices can be used in conjunction with their vehicles while driving and when parked.
“We believe wearable will be a trend – that people will replace their regular wristwatch with a smartwatch,” said Robert Hein, head of personal mobility and adaptivity at BMW Research and Technology.
On Monday, BMW showed how the Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch can work with the automaker’s i Remote application to provide navigation and traffic information to drivers that’s easily accessed with the flip of a wrist. Worn like a regular wrist watch, a smartwatch works by linking with a smartphone to display digital information available wirelessly through the cloud.
“The main idea behind the smartwatch is that any information or function that I want to have real quick fits very well to your smartwatch. It’s not complicated to activate a function or to get to know the information, because you just have to look on your watch,” said Hein, who said the watch is also able to interact with the car when it’s parked, providing information on whether a door is locked or a window is open or, even better, when traffic is building en route to a desired destination so drivers should get in their cars and go.
Mercedes-Benz debuted similar technology developed in partnership with the Palo Alto, Calif., startup Pebble, which also makes a smartwatch that interacts with a car when it’s moving and stopped. On the road, the Pebble watch vibrates to alert the driver of upcoming hazards such as bad weather affecting road conditions, or their own mix-ups, like driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Drivers can deactivate the warning simply by shaking their wrist.
Mercedes has also partnered with Google Glass – a system that operates similarly to a smartphone, except it is worn like eyeglasses. Looking through the lens, information that would normally be presented on a smartphone screen is projected on the eyeglasses and accessed by voice or touch controls.
Google Glass is currently only available to technology developers, not the general public. But Mercedes-Benz partnered with the Silicon Valley company to use the technology for door-to-door navigation. Using the same wi-fi system as a cellphone, drivers can program a destination into the Google Glass, which can direct them, by foot, to their cars.
Once its wearer is situated in the driver’s seat, Google Glass transfers the destination information to the car’s navigation system, which then takes over and guides the driver through the car’s display screen. After the driver arrives at the destination and exits the car, Google Glass again takes over, directing the now-pedestrian to the store, restaurant or other final destination.
A FORD THAT RUNS ON SUNSHINE: During CES, Ford demonstrated the C-MAX Solar Energi concept vehicle it revealed last week. The plug-in hybrid hatchback is equipped with rooftop solar panels that can fully recharge the car’s battery in six or seven hours for 21 miles of pure electric driving.
Currently, many electric-vehicle drivers use solar panels installed on the roofs of their homes to generate the electricity that powers their cars. That rooftop solar, however, doesn’t feed the electricity directly into the car. Rather, it sends it to the utility’s grid, then back to the house and through an outlet that plugs into the car’s battery.
The C-MAX Solar Energi can still plug into the traditional grid system, but it is also capable of cutting out the utility middleman entirely.
“We could really take the whole debate over whether electrification of vehicles makes sense off the table by using a direct renewable charging mechanism,” said Mike Tinskey, Ford’s director of global vehicle electrification and infrastructure.
There are just 1.5 square meters of space on the top of the Ford hatchback for solar panels, which, on their own, generate just 300 to 350 watts of electricity – far too little to charge the car’s eight kilowatt-hours’ worth of lithium-ion batteries. But when parked under a structure made from a magnifying Fresnel lens that can concentrate the sun’s rays on the photovoltaic cells and even track the sun so its power is further optimized, the solar panels can generate eight times as much electricity.
Like most other manufacturers of electric vehicles, Ford has a solar-power partner to help electric-vehicle owners reduce the carbon footprint of their driving by generating the electricity needed to do so. Ford worked with its rooftop solar partner, SunPower, in developing more efficient photovoltaic panels for the C-MAX.
“We think efficiency is the key to making solar mainstream, meaning that you don’t need as much. Especially when you’re looking at a vehicle where you have a limited amount of space to put solar, efficiency is a real big component,” Tinskey said.
Ford also worked with the Georgia Institute of Technology in developing the canopy – a freestanding structure under which the car is parked to recharge. While recharging, the car creeps forward on its own, using the sensors that are already embedded in the car for its adaptive cruise control and blind-spot detection systems, to place itself in the most optimal spot for electricity generation.
Tinskey wouldn’t estimate when the Solar Energi concept might come to market, or at what price, but he did offer an idea of how much money it could, potentially, save drivers: $700 annually in electricity (fuel) costs. Recharging the car directly with solar energy, he said, can also reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 4 metric tons.
Tinskey said the technology makes a lot of sense for workplace charging in sunny climates, such as Southern California, and in other parts of the world where electricity is generated from dirtier sources, such as coal, or is otherwise unreliable or unavailable.
Ford still needs to work out a few issues with the system.
“We don’t want anybody walking under the canopy when there’s no vehicle, because it’s a multiplier,” Tinskey said. “Whatever the solution is, we have to develop that.”
TOYOTA’S ‘CAR OF THE FUTURE’: Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are beginning to seem like more than vapors. On Monday, Toyota announced it will bring its fuel cell electric vehicle to market in 2015 – one year earlier than previously announced.
An electric vehicle that runs on hydrogen gas, the FCV concept is a four-door sedan that can travel about 300 miles on a tank of fuel and refuel in three to five minutes.
Unlike plug-in electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, which get their electricity from an external source – a power outlet – the FCV is propelled by electricity that is generated inside the vehicle using electrochemical cells that convert the energy of the hydrogen into electricity by turning the gas into water. That electricity powers an electric motor that propels the vehicle. The leftover water exits the drivetrain through the tailpipe and is practically unnoticeable.
The FCV is merely the last in a long line of prototypes Toyota has been testing for the past 11 years. Design-wise, it is more similar to the futuristic FCEV concept Honda unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November than it is to the Tucson SUV hydrogen fuel cell vehicle Hyundai also announced at the L.A. show that will go on sale this spring in the L.A. area.
Function dictated its form. The two hydrogen fuel tanks sit behind the car’s back seats, and the fuel cell stack is below the driver. An electric motor is located in the front engine compartment that would typically house an internal combustion engine.
“We think hydrogen is the power plant for the next 100 years,” said Jim Pisz, corporate manager of North American business strategy for Toyota Motor Corp. in Torrance, Calif. “It’s not going to be the only power plant. The efficiency of internal combustion engines is still moving forward.
“We’re the biggest hybrid-vehicle maker in the world, so batteries are a big thing for us, but fuel cells lend themselves to being the power plant of the future because we’ve been able to reduce the costs by making them smaller and more efficient. Right now, the battery chemistry breakthroughs needed with battery electric vehicles are not coming.”
The FCV will be launched in California. The state has the largest network of hydrogen refueling stations in the country, which, at a current tally of just eight stations, is still paltry.
Toyota has been working with the University of California-Irvine’s Advanced Power and Energy Program to map out the locations of hydrogen fueling stations. The state of California will contribute more than $200 million to build as many as 100 hydrogen fueling stations by 2024, 20 of which are expected to be up and running next year. According to UC-Irvine, just 68 stations clustered in the San Francisco Bay Area, Silicon Valley, and L.A., Orange and San Diego counties would be enough to support about 10,000 fuel cell vehicles.
While hydrogen is the most abundant element on the planet, its primary feedstock, when used as fuel, is likely to be compressed natural gas in the near term, Pisz said. More sustainable sources of hydrogen, generated from wind, solar and biogas, will be a bit further out. Currently, there is one hydrogen station, in Fountain Valley, that generates hydrogen from sewer gas.
Toyota will announce the FCV’s name and its price in the next few months. According to Pisz, “This is a global product that will launch in Japan, Europe and the U.S. We’re hoping with the cost efficiencies taken out of the vehicle and more volume than originally planned that it lends a positive price for consumers.”
DRIVERLESS CARS: The BMW i3 that slalomed through cones at the Las Vegas Speedway this week had one thing in common with the Bosch-retrofit Volkswagen Passat that eased into its parking space at the city’s convention center. Neither car had a driver.
Both companies, along with fellow Germans Audi and Mercedes-Benz, were showcasing the evolution of driverless automotive technology as part of last week’s Consumer Electronics Show.
Audi showed off its concept A7 Autonomous, which drove itself onto the stage at CES. The vehicle uses a combination of lasers, radar and cameras to determine its path. Capable of remaining in its lane on its own when traveling at speeds under 40 mph, the A7 Autonomous can also brake itself if a car strays into its path.
While Audi calls its concept “piloted driving” and Mercedes dubs it “autonomous,” BMW prefers the term “highly automated driving” because, at this stage of development, “it doesn’t allow the driver to read a newspaper,” said Werner Huber, BMW project manager for driver assistance and environmental perception. “But the car is able 99 percent of the time to deal with the situation perfectly.
“Our approach of highly automated driving is: In specific situations, the car can take over the complete driving task without any necessary intervention of the driver,” he said.
“It takes over longitudinal and lateral controls. It can deal with critical situations, and it’s capable to come to a safe stop if necessary. If the driver should take over the driving task and won’t do that, then the car will stop,” Huber said.
It takes 10 to 12 sensors to accurately read the driving environment, according to Huber. The sensors use a combination of radio frequencies, cameras and light detectors, and have built-in redundancies in case a sensor fails. That information is then processed and analyzed by the car’s onboard software, which operates controllers for steering, acceleration and braking.
BMW’s highly automated driving also includes a remote control parking feature that lets drivers exit the car before pulling into a narrow parking space so the car can park itself. Bosch demonstrated a similar system with its Automated Park Assist Vehicle this week.
“Once the vehicle finds a parking spot that is appropriate, you can stop the vehicle, have your iPhone or Android app activated, and then it would let you get out of the vehicle. You can park your car without having to worry about getting out of it afterward,” said Tim Frasier, regional president of Bosch Automotive Electronics, North America.
The system uses 12 ultrasonic sensors to safely move the vehicle into position before automatically putting the vehicle in park and shutting off the engine.
Bosch works with multiple automakers, but Frasier declined to say which ones might incorporate its park-assist technology – only that “it would be available as early as 2015.”