As we roam around the virtual hallways and meeting rooms of this year's virtual CES, autonomous cars continue to be hot topics of conversation. But thanks to COVID, this is a very different year for the world's largest consumer electronics show.
In years past, virtually every hall in the Las Vegas Convention Center sported autonomous vehicles – concepts, of course. And seemingly everyone from Google to Uber to Tesla to Ford was working on their own proprietary system, as the technology moved closer and closer to a time when cars would no longer need humans for any purpose.
But how realistic is that?
In a session yesterday entitled “Vehicle Tech Innovations That Consumers Want,” a panel of experts discussed a wide array of features. And thanks to COVID, driver priorities may be changing.
In 2020, the car became an important “second space” to many of us who have spent inordinate amounts of times cooped up at home with increasingly cranky family members. More than ever before, our cars have become an escape, our sanctuary, and a respite from the pressures of everyday life.
Several car makers are emphasizing this theme in their advertising, focusing even more on comfortable seating as well as media systems that can compete with anything we have in our homes.
While our vehicles have always been about commuting – getting from point A to point B – COVID has disrupted the pecking order of automobile use cases. Now, we're using our cars for family road trips (seemingly safer than piling everyone on an airplane or cruise ship). And of course, there's the whole idea of entertainment systems that can be enjoyed by individual members of the family (even if everyone's using their own personalized screens).
We'll be exploring some of those themes today on our virtual tour for broadcasters, as both Ford and Mercedes-Benz will be talking about how the pandemic has shifted their priorities. Mercedes is touting a totally new in-dash technology called MBUX Hyperscreen (pictured below) that is utterly breathtaking. Radio will have to up its game to ensure that stations look as good as they sound on the dashboards of the future.
But yesterday's episode of “car talk” started out with a conversation about vehicles smart enough to drive themselves. But that won't mean their “drivers” are at the head of the class. You may remember the guy pictured at the very top of this post. Joshua Brown was the first known fatality due to being overconfident about his semi-autonomous car – yes, a Tesla – and its ability to drive itself.
He lost his life in 2016 in a collision with a tractor-trailer while his Model S was in the “autopilot” mode. Brown was a car enthusiast who submitted videos of his self-driving exploits to YouTube, even getting the attention of Elon Musk – before the accident.
Fast-forward to today, and there's been some serious tapping of the brakes on autonomous features, spending, and development. In fact, there's even something of a “war of words” taking place between Tesla and Google (specifically, their Waymo division devoted to developing autonomous vehicles).
According to Andrew J. Hawkins writing in The Verge, the kerfuffle began last year when Tesla sent out a software update called “Full Self Driving.” And as has been the case with its string of tech developments, some of the more adventurous (or foolhardy) Tesla drivers have posted their road test experiences on YouTube.
In response, a blog post from the Waymo team threw a little shade in Musk's way, noting this exercise in claiming superiority via positioning is “more than just a branding or linguistic exercise.”
And in fact, they pointed out that if drivers get the sense these cars will be like the name implies – drive themselves – it can lead people to “unknowingly take risks…that could jeopardize not only their own safety but the safety of people around them.”
As we well know, words matter. And Waymo has backed away from systems like Tesla's Autopilot because it encouraged users to nod off while “driving” the vehicle.
And in an effort to be more judicious about this technology, Hawkins notes Waymo has changed the name of its public education campaign, first launched in 2017, from “Let's Talk Self-Driving” to “Let's Talk Autonomous Driving.”
It's subtle, but as Waymo put it last week, it's an important distinction “because precision in language matters and could save lives.”
What is happening in the automotive sector matters very dearly to all of us in radio, especially as the pandemic has forced many automakers to pivot.
We'll continue to learn more about the intersection of auto technology and the consumer driving experience on today's virtual CES 2021 tour.
Registration for Jacobs Media's virtual CES 2021 tour closes today at 10 am ET. Info and registration here.