The Contrarian's Best of CES 2017
You needed a leafblower to pierce the stench of buzzwords and find the good stuff
Autonomy! Connectivity! Mobility! You needed a leafblower to pierce the stench of buzzwords at CES 2017. While the rest of the media parachuted into Vegas and slunk out 48 hours later, I huffed it around Vegas for five days, from the loading docks of the Convention Center to the bowels of the Sands. Beyond the cumulous clouds of press releases out of which drones swarmed overhead, the most brilliant products and ideas hid in plain sight.
Here are my 14 favorites, from infrastructure to policy, people and startups. Let’s start with the less obvious:
14) Mass Transit Is Good: The Las Vegas Monorail
What is mobility? It’s whatever gets me from A to B quickly, cheaply and with minimal hassle. Mobility, thy name is monorail. Vegas traffic, always terrible, is absolute murder during CES. Walking is inconvenient. Everything is twice as far as it looks. It’s cold in the desert. The Monorail is the best proof I’ve ever seen for the absolute necessity of public rail transportation. A single ride is $5. The same cab ride is $20-$50, depending on traffic. A 5-day pass is $43. You don’t need apps or connectivity for the best way to get from half the hotels in town to the other half, or the convention center. I’m sure the monorail will be autonomous someday, but who cares? No self-driving car will ever beat a train through traffic. Vegas should expand a system that justifies itself with one ride. They should also heat the platforms.
13) Ride-Hailing Solves A Problem No One Talks About: Pickups
For all the scorn poured onto ride-hailing services, they’ve solved a problem traditional taxi services haven’t. It’s not an app. It’s dedicated pickup zones. Exit any hotel and what do you find? Hundreds of people huddled in the cold for a taxi. The wait at 5PM at the convention center was over an hour. Too cold or lazy to walk to the monorail? Order an Uber/Lyft and walk to the dedicated pickup area. The Venetian and Bellagio zones were heated. The convention center lot? Not so much. I never waited more than five minutes after opening the app, which is how long it took me to walk to my pickup stall. Are those people waiting in the taxi line masochists? Just dumb? Taxis in Vegas are expensive. At least you can easily split the cost of an Uber/Lyft.
12) Autonomy? Privacy is a Bigger Problem: Ralph Nader
Nader, infamous consumer safety advocate and author of Unsafe At Any Speed, is probably responsible for saving more lives than Volvo and Mercedes put together. One would think he’d embrace self-driving cars wholeheartedly. On the contrary, he’s opposed to semi-autonomous systems like Tesla Autopilot even as a stepping stone to full self-driving, both of which he thinks should be deferred until regulations are put in place.
But that’s not why he’s on this list.
At a CES panel called “Navigating Risk through the Mobility Ecosystem”, Nader was the loudest voice warning of the privacy problems with self-driving cars, a topic widely steamrollered by automakers and Silicon Valley. Although I disagree with Nader on autonomy, we need voices like Nader’s more than ever if we aren’t to lose whatever privacy we have left.
11) The First & Last Mile: Swagtron/Lab Elle
The biggest problem with end-to-end mobility is the first and last mile. You can walk, or you have shared services like Citibike. What’s in between? Nothing cool, yet, but Swagtron and Lab Elle’s new products would fill that gap perfectly. Both offer electric scooters with enough range to get you from stall to stall, if only they were part of a network like Citibike’s. Swagtron’s, offering 15 miles of range for $399, is the one that makes sense. Lab Elle was vague on details, but their high-end product costing $1500 is the one you’ll lust after. Just look at that sexy bag.
10) The Semi-Stealth Self-Driving People: AIMotive
Previously known as ADASWorks, AIMotive is a Hungarian self-driving startup whose tech looms much larger than their public relations. I brought George Hotz of Comma.ai with me for a ride behind the convention center in their prototype, and he said they were six months ahead of everyone else in the sector except Tesla. Most importantly. AIMotive is rare in that they stand with Tesla and Hotz in thinking LIDAR is unnecessary for the commercial deployment of Level 4 autonomy. If that’s true — and I think it is — AIMotive is one of the most important startups we’ve yet to hear a lot about.
9) The Yin To George Hotz's Yang: X-Matik
Some say you’d be crazy to enter the self-driving sector now, on a shoestring, to face off against the world’s largest automakers and a slew of startups swimming in that sweet, hot VC cash. X-Matik founder Nima Ashtari disagrees. He calls his prototype the world’s first aftermarket Autopilot, although I think George Hotz of Comma.ai and Kyle Vogt of Cruise would disagree. Unlike Hotz’s software-based control over steering, brakes and throttle — so far limited to new Honda Accords and Acura ILX’s with lane keeping — X-Matik is a mechanical retrofit that will work with any car. Allegedly. I saw video of his semi-autonomous system installed on a Subaru Forester. The prototype wasn’t attractive, nor can I say how good it was, but Ashtari gets an A for effort. He hopes to sell it for $2500. We’ll see. I’ve seen other mechanical retrofit systems, somewhat different and already funded. The sector needs innovation and competition. If it works at all, X-Matik might offer both.
8) What Comma.ai Won't Sell: Neodriven
Ever since George Hotz aftermarket Autopilot (the now infamous Comma One) and made both its design and code open source, I’ve been waiting for someone to build a business around what he refers to as the Android of self-driving cars. It looks like that person is former Tesla employee Matt Schulwitz, founder of NeoDriven, who is manufacturing the Hotz-designed Comma Neo hardware for $1495, or 1 Bitcoin. As of today, the Bitcoin is probably the better deal. Download and install a free copy of Comma’s OpenPilot, and you’re on your way toward developing your own semi-autonomous driving system. A short ride in Vegas replicated what I suspected to be true: Hotz’s OpenPilot is at least as good as Tesla’s original Autopilot. Is there a business to be built around the NEO? I’m convinced there is, and will be writing more about that soon.
7) #NotAllSmokeAndMirrors: Faraday "Driverless Valet"
Forget the grief everyone has been giving Faraday about alleged financial problems and design choices. Faraday still has a boatload of good people, many of them from Tesla, so it’s inconceivable that they didn’t bring the lessons learned in Fremont to the FF-91. Something has to work, and one of those somethings is the “Driverless Valet” self-parking system, which I found more impressive than most of the self-driving demos I’ve seen. I sat in an FF-91 as it circled a parking lot looking for a spot, mapped it by LIDAR, then backed in. Many such demonstrations are faked by merely following a pre-mapped GPS course, so I asked to have some cannon fodder placed in the original empty spot. A Faraday staffer stepped right up, the FF-91 circled again, found another spot, parked, and then returned me to the front door.
It may not sound like rocket science, but the only other such parking demo I’ve seen was in a Tesla video, and that was edited. Nvidia/Audi? Delphi/MobilEye? Sorry, but cars circling a closed course and calmly navigating traffic are getting a little passé, at least if you’re one of the big boys.
I know Faraday has more good stuff coming. I just wish we could see it.
Which brings us to the obvious ones that don’t need much explanation:
6) A Solution of EV Trips That's Not Tesla: Chargepoint
Finally, someone is building out a US network of high-speed electric charging stations to match or surpass Tesla’s Supercharger Network. This is the roadblock to long-distance travel in anything but a Tesla. How long before Chargepoint’s is deployed? Probably around the time Tesla leapfrogs everyone again.
5) Finally, A Real Car Subscription Service: Cadillac Book
A $1500/month unlimited mileage, insurance-included, zero-maintenance subscription service for any Cadillac, including the CTS-V? This is the future. Cadillac is the first company to put a price on the table for such a service. Add autonomy in a couple of years and one starts to see the slots of the mobility continuum fill up. I can imagine Chevrolet coming in at $500, and Mercedes at $2000 or more. This is so big I don’t think people grasp it yet. But they will.
4) Too Bad It's Not In Production: Chrysler Portal
A cool-looking, sub $50k electric and autonomous people mover no one will want to drive anyway, the Portal is what Faraday should have built instead of the FF-91.
3) Making Looking Cool Easy: Honda
A self-balancing motorcycle? Yes, please. Perfect for everyone who wants the semblance of freedom in an autonomous world, but doesn’t want to know how to ride properly.
2) The First-Mover With A Vengeance Medal: Nvidia
Nvidia was everywhere at CES. As the foundation of Tesla's next-generation Autopilot, Nvidia is far ahead in demonstrating their lead in AI for self-driving car applications. Audi and Mercedes have now signed on, setting up a pretty fearsome axis in opposition to companies like BMW, who are allied with nascent rival Intel.
1) The Future Ubiquity Trophy: Amazon
Amazon was also everywhere at CES, and I mean everywhere. Everyone knows Amazon is knee deep in the logistics business, and delivery drones are coming. Sources tell me Amazon has a stealth self-driving car project. Talk about a game changer, if it's true. More #comingsoon, once I have corroboration.
Alex Roy is Editor-at-Large for The Drive, author of The Driver, and set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in 31 hours & 4 minutes. You may follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.