Speeding up Technology: Democratisation in car industry

I always love this time of year. Recharged after the break, and ready to leap into the new year, following the news out of CES – the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas – is a great way to find inspiration as we look to the year ahead.

From smart toothbrushes to smart pollution-eliminating cycling snoods, there’s plenty to see at the show, but this year more than ever it is clear that the car industry is right at the beating heart of the CES. What’s really caught my attention, though, is not simply the pace of change in automotive tech, but also the democratisation of it. No longer is the best tech simply the preserve of the most expensive and luxurious cars, instead it’s often making its way to the mainstream much quicker – and sometimes even first.

Elon Musk’s Tesla is truly at the cutting edge of the two most significant technologies in the industry – electric propulsion and autonomous driving –  but with the Model S starting at around £60,000 and the family-orientated Model X on sale at upwards of £80,000, it has so far focused on the upper end of the market. That is set to change late in 2017, when the ‘affordable’ Model 3 starts to arrive on customers’ driveways.

Aside from real concerns about range and the availability of a good charging infrastructure, the very best electric cars, or EVs, are not compromised versions of cars as we’ve come to know them. In many ways they can be better – if you’ve not yet had the opportunity to enjoy the thrill of instant acceleration in utter silence in an electric car, I recommend you give it a go. Carmakers are looking to EV tech to enhance, not just replicate, the traditional driving experience. Startup Faraday Future unveiled its first car, the FF 91, at CES. Despite its size – it’s an SUV – it can accelerate to 60mph in a startling 2.39 seconds, and the carmaker received over 64,000 reservations in the first 36 hours after it was announced. Some way short of the 232,000 orders Tesla secured in just a day for the Model 3 last year, but still a remarkable feat for a company that has never yet actually sold a car.

As much as vehicles like these can steal the headlines, back in the real world the appeal of tax incentives, reduced fuel bills and lower maintenance costs are increasingly bringing mainstream customers into the EV fold. In the UK, Nissan’s Leaf and Mitsubishi’s plug-in hybrid, the Outlander, consistently lead the sales charts amongst EVs. Meanwhile, Ford announced this week that it was spiking plans for a new plant in Mexico, choosing instead to invest US$4.5bn in a plan that will see them bringing 13 new electric models to market in the next five years.

Tesla’s technology proves that complete automation is an option – even if it can’t yet be used

Autonomous driving also looks set to tip into the mainstream in the near future. Several manufacturers already offer some degree of autonomous driving in some of their cars, whether it’s automated parking or autonomous driving on motorways, but Tesla is going a step further in 2017 offering its fully autonomous Autopilot technology that can take you all the way from A to B all by itself, including in the Model 3. You won’t be able to switch it on until regulators make it legal, but by putting it in the cars at all Tesla is demonstrating the technology is here already.

It is concerns about safety – and therefore political/regulatory frameworks and customer adoption – that are holding back autonomous driving today, not the technology. But safety is also driving innovation amongst carmakers. Volvo, a brand whose reputation has been steeped in safety for decades and which has gone through something of a revival in recent years, has an ambitious and bold aim. Their vision is that by 2020 no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car.

Beyond the carmakers, there is a web of companies producing interesting and innovative technology. Valeo has equipped Jaguars with its Blind Spot Detection technology, using radars attached to the back of a car to alert drivers to cars not otherwise visible. And for more of a matter of convenience than safety, automotive technology company ZF has developed a ‘car wallet’ which can be used both to make petrol and toll payments, along with monitoring and restricting access to a car.

Even more than the tech that will literally drive the cars of the future, consumers across the board are demanding more from carmakers in the way they interact with their cars. At CES, BMW developed its vision for gesture-controlled dashboards, while in 2016 Jaguar Land Rover looked to wearables, introducing a wristband for active customers so that they can unlock their car after a day at the beach or a run, without the need to carry a key around.

But as smartphone integration continues to develop through Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, there is growing scope for drivers of all cars to access the latest tech in the car, no matter what they drive. Ford is widely credited with starting the trend for connected communications and entertainment in 2007 with their Sync system, and when they launched it they did so in the mass market Focus model, rather than straight into high-end brands. Increasingly carmakers are trying to appeal to new customers and younger demographics through in-car technology.

Technological advances, such as power steering, were once used to distinguish high-end cars from their cheaper counterparts

In the past, new technology from ABS brakes through to power steering and parking sensors have taken a long time to trickle down to mainstream cars. Today, brands like Tesla, Volvo and BMW will continue to exploit technology to create the superlative driving experience, but consumers at all levels are demanding new technology much quicker.

Throughout 2016, I was looking to buy a new car, having sold mine in 2015. Ironically, the pace of change in the car industry has perhaps put me off committing to any one car for fear of it being obsolete within a short period of time. But finally in 2017, it looks like pipe dreams in the industry will start to become reality for more of us.

I am left, once again, enthused about how technology will continue to drive forward all consumer-facing industries. For some, Carnival’s president and CEO Arnold Donald was a surprise keynote speaker to open up the show. But the new wearable he announced, called the Ocean Medallion, shows just how far-reaching the potential is. I consider it a great privilege to meet so many innovators and game-changers in this job, and I can’t wait to see what you do this year.

Moira@thembsgroup.co.uk | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup