First, please excuse my absence over the holidays; I hope you all had a great one and a wonderful start to 2016. On the other hand, I’m sure you had more important things to do than read about Teslas cheating death, Switzerland’s new driverless tour buses, or why 2020 will be the most important year in automobile history.

But before we get to 2020, let’s kick off 2016 with all the fanfare and excitement it deserves, because it will go down in history as the first year that mostly-autonomous cars start to become widely available, and indeed, the first of a quartet of years leading to the climax that will be 2020. Because let’s get one thing straight: you will have an autonomous car by 2020, and you’ll be able to have one in 2016.

So what do we have to look forward to this year?

  • Tesla finally faces its first legitimate competitor… or not?
  • Chevy Bolt brings 200 miles of electric driving under $30,000
  • Mercedes’ cars learn to talk to one another
  • Volvo’s onslaught into the autonomous driving world continues
  • … and more!

So let’s dive in and see what we can expect in 2016…

Faraday Future imperfect?

When news — or lack thereof — started to trickle out about the mysterious new company Faraday Future, it was generally received in one of two ways: tossed aside as just a bit of meaningless, unsubstantiated flotsam in a world now justly dominated by Tesla, or ravenously devoured, with every not-so-juicy tidbit of information nevertheless juiced dry for whatever secrets they may have revealed. And of course a quick refresher on Wikipedia about who Faraday was, and what he did.

Problem is though, juicing anything out of Faraday Future’s teasers has been only slightly less difficult than extracting a glass of pinot noir from a rock.

Until now. Just announced at CES 2016, that rock has at last been been juiced. Crushed, perhaps, is a better word though, and with it, all hopes for a legitimate Tesla competitor which the world sorely needs, and indeed, which Elon Musk welcomes with open arms (and patents).

FF’s grand reveal has been the unfortunately named FFZERO1 which sounds like a stuttering kid talking about Nintendo’s legendary F-Zero racing game.

Because, you see, FF’s grand reveal has been the unfortunately named FFZERO1 which sounds like a stuttering kid talking about Nintendo’s legendary F-Zero racing game.

Flawed naming scheme aside, the real issue with the FFZERO1 is that it’s not exactly what you’d call a practical family car like, say, a Tesla Model S. Not even slightly.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 15.35.28.png
FFZERO1 Concept | SOURCE: Faraday Future

To start with, it looks like somebody crossed the Batmobile with an A-Wing fighter from Star Wars. And as anybody knows, neither of those vehicles is particularly roomy or comfortable. To wit, the FFZERO1 has a seating capacity of just one.

That said, it does have a comically potent 1,000-horsepower electric motor, so at least in stoplight races, it should pose a legitimate challenge to a Ludicrous Mode-equipped Model S, at least if the latter car is filled with five passengers and their luggage in both trunks.

While FF promise a road-going version is in the works, whatever final form it takes, a Tesla competitor it does not seem to be.

Volvo rolls into the future

As you may know, “Volvo” is the first-person singular conjugation of the Latin verb volvere, “to roll,” thus, “I roll.” Appropriate, then, for a car that will soon be doing most of your driving for you, and indeed already started taking control earlier in 2015 with the spectacular (and spectacularly beautiful) new XC90 7-seat SUV and its almost-but-not-quite-yet-Tesla levels of automation called Pilot Assist.

2016 Volvo XC90 | SOURCE: Volvo

Seemingly out of nowhere, Volvo has leapt out of the relative obscurity into which it sank during the past decade, freshly infused with cash from its new Chinese owner Geely.

While people will scoff at the idea of a Chinese-owned Volvo, such concerns and criticisms are no more warranted than those about a Disney-owned Stars Wars.

While people will scoff at the idea of a Chinese-owned Volvo, such concerns and criticisms are no more warranted than those about a Disney-owned Stars Wars: Geely provides only the money, while Volvos remain proudly Swedish designed and Swedish built, just as Star Wars is still very much a LucasFilm production (indeed, the Disney logo is nowhere to be found in the opening titles). To wit, a small Swedish flag can be found stitched to the seats of every Volvo.

Chinese funded, Swedish designed and built | SOURCE: Volvo

But more to the point is Volvo’s impossibly aggressive — and unexpected — head-start with the autonomous car revolution. Not only is the 2016 Motor Trend SUV of the Year XC90 already immensely capable with its 31 mph (50 km/h) Pilot Assist, but Volvo has made sure to effectively future-proof itself by borrowing from Tesla’s playbook and making virtually all the car’s software-based systems over-the-air (OtA) upgradable.

To wit, the relatively paltry (when compared with Tesla, yet on-par with vastly more expensive vehicles like Mercedes’ coveted flagship, the S Class) Pilot Assist’s 31 mph limitation is rumored to be software-updatable to 80 mph (129 km/h).

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 14.22.12
2017 Volvo S90 | SOURCE: Volvo

More impressively is Volvo’s Vision 2020 goal which seeks to eliminate all human death or serious injury inside a Volvo vehicle, a goal initiated with the XC90, and soon to be followed, by leaps and bounds, with the mind-meltingly gorgeous S90 sedan and equally heart-stopping V70 wagon (yes, a gorgeous wagon) over the next few years.

Beginning with the upcoming 2017 S90, Pilot Assist will be standard equipment. This is huge.

But perhaps the most resolute and bold example of Volvo’s determination to make its 2020 goal — and most uniquely different approach to any other automaker — is that beginning with the upcoming 2017 S90, Pilot Assist will be standard equipment.

This is huge. Because in order to make any new technology appeal to the masses, not to mention bleeding edge technology, like, where your car drives you, you need to make sure they experience it first.

Unfortunately however, with new technology comes renewed trepidation, and thus slower adoption. What better way to fast track the adoption of autonomous functionality than by simply giving it to you as standard equipment with your new car?

So think about all this for a second. It’s now 2016, so 2020 is just four years away. By that time, not only will the phenomenally impressive XC90 be the oldest car in Volvo’s new lineup, but Volvo will have an even larger lead in the rapidly moving race to (mostly) autonomous cars.

Volvo has made clear they don’t yet intend to fully remove the driver, but rather to take a more aviation-inspired approach, rather like Tesla, with what I call a “driver-managed autopilot-enabled” semi-autonomous car.

Google/Ford (see below), Tesla, and Mercedes? Consider yourselves on notice. The Swedes are striking back.

Car talk

Cars that can see the road and traffic ahead are all well and good, and indeed, are a necessary perquisite to autonomous vehicles, obviously. But even once autonomous cars’ vision systems — be it computer vision or LiDAR, as discussed more below — achieve the same refinement and acuity as that of mere humans, there’s still room for improvement.

Put another way, even the sharpest eyesight in the world can’t see around corners.

To compensate for the limitation of human vision, pilots and ship captains have long utilized radar to see far distances and through inclement weather, in short, to augment their visual acuity.

But — at least for sake of this discussion — radar can be thought of as a “reactive” mode of vision, in the sense that it requires a scan of the space around you in order to determine what’s what, and what’s where. Utilized on cars, this is fine — take LiDAR, for instance — but a more “preventative” method would allow cars to be “aware” of each others’ presence.

The idea is that if every car is aware of every other car’s location, then the need for accident “avoidance” will, at least theoretically, become obsolete.

Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) communication, promised for several years now, aims to do precisely this, and is being pioneered by none other than Mercedes-Benz with their upcoming 2017 E Class sedan.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 10.52.35 PM.png
2017 Mercedes-Benz E Class | SOURCE: Mercedes-Benz

The idea is that if every car is aware of every other car’s location, then the need for accident “avoidance” will, at least theoretically, become obsolete: since all cars will know the location of one another, there can never be even a close call, let alone an actual imminent accident.

Obviously, however, this system is utterly useless if your car is the only one in town with such functionality. If ever there was an example of a system that relied upon the principal of network effects, this is it: the more cars have it, the more beneficial it will be to everyone.

And so, enter Delphi, a supplier of automotive hardware and software solutions, which just announced at the 2016 CES expo going on in Las Vegas that they are working on a V2Everything protocol (certain to be abbreviated simply “V2E” in the near future) — Vehicle to Everything — which will enable not only cars of any make to communicate with one another, but also to communicate with street lights, and even bicycles and pedestrians, the goal being of course, a world with zero automotive-related deaths or even accidents of any kind.

Chevy bolts into limelight with sub-$30K 200-mile EV

When the Chevy Volt first appeared on public roads several years ago, it was deservedly praised for offering a shameless, interim solution between hybrid and full-EV vehicles. With version 2.0 now on public roads, it still utilizes a gas motor, this time more efficient, that functions only as a backup generator for the battery once it exhausts its meager 50 mile range.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 4.28.15 PM.png
2017 Chevy Bolt | SOURCE: Chevy

Criticized by Elon Musk for precisely what it is — the aforementioned stopgap solution — it’s received generally high praise, but it still fails at least on philosophical grounds as it continues to lug around a greasy internal combustion engine along with a tank of refined petroleum sloshing about.

The Bolt packs a massive 200 miles per charge and is slated to cost something under $30,000 before federal and state tax incentives.

And thanks to the aforementioned practical failure that is the Faraday Future FFZERO1 concept, but for the forthcoming Chevy Bolt, Tesla would be destined to carry on in the new year with nary a legitimate rival. Yes the Nissan Leaf sells in droves, but it’s not a legitimate competitor, as it offers only 80 miles of range, give or take, on par with other marques’ electrified offerings, like Volkswagen’s e-Golf and the admittedly adorable Fiat 500e.

But the Chevy Bolt, this could change everything. A plucky little thing, this new entrant in the burgeoning EV market looks to be the real deal: a legitimately practical 4-door hatchback, it packs a massive 200 miles per charge and is slated to cost something under $30,000 before federal and state tax incentives. This is a really big deal.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 4.28.27 PM.png
2017 Chevy Bolt | SOURCE: Chevy

Production is slated for late 2016 with the car appearing in first owners’ hands some time by early 2017, if not sooner. And just look at that interior: it looks like a Star Trek shuttle pod!

Nvidia moves from doing graphics for virtual cars to navigation for autonomous cars

Here’s one you probably didn’t see coming: Nvidia, legendary manufacturer — and archival to ATI — of high-end computer graphics cards, has taken the lead in providing hardware and software solutions to maximize autonomous cars’ vision processing.

In fact, Nvidia has been at this for a few years now. But making headlines this week is their new Drive PX 2 “deep learning” supercomputer that can process all visual data — from LiDAR, visual cameras, and other input systems — to the tune of 36,000 data points in 3D space eight times per second.

Put another way, that’s 24 trillion operations per second, or roughly 10 times faster than their previous model now in use by 50 companies around the world. And incredibly, it fits in a small lunchbox-size compartment in the back of the car. Convenient.

You will probably not be surprised that the first customer to test Nvidia’s new Drive PX 2 is none other than Volvo. According to Nvidia’s CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, 94% of traffic accidents and deaths are cause by human errors. Good thing then that the computers are already outperforming their human overlords in real world image recognition tests.

Ford’s new LiDAR most advanced in the world?

Ford has recently announced what it calls the smallest, most advanced LiDAR sensor… in the world.

There’s been an ongoing debate between the different philosophies of autonomous car technology: on the one hand has been Tesla’s “camera vision” approach which completely eschews LiDAR; on the other, has been Google’s warm embrace of the cumbersome, expensive tech.

Now, however, Ford is essentially claiming that you can both have your cake and eat it too with this, the smallest — and presumably, least expensive? — LiDAR device ever manufactured for automotive use, produced by Ford’s friends over at Velodyne.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 15.32.37.png
Ford’s new LiDAR | SOURCE: The Verge via Velodyne

While LiDAR in theory should be better than camera vision (LiDAR paints a 3D model of the world with laser-based radar, while camera vision attempts to imbue autonomous driving computers with brute force a semblance of human vision, a monumentally challenging task) Tesla’s approach with the latter technology has so far advanced in leaps and bounds, at a faster and faster rate, with the release just months ago of Tesla’s Autopilot.

But perhaps the real reason for Ford’s focus on LiDAR is because of its new relationship with Google….

Ford gets all Googley

Ford and Google are now BFFs, with Google positioned to gain the most from their new found relationship from Ford’s robust manufacturing capability that will essentially offload billions of dollars that Google would otherwise have needed to cover its own vehicle production.

This makes sense, as Gartner Inc. analyst Thilo Koslowski recently explained to Automotive News that Google’s “focus has shifted to looking for OEM partners to deploy the technology” instead of building its autonomous vehicles in-house.

But indisputably, the timing of this new friendship has just as much to do with Ford’s new aforementioned LiDAR device which Google is sure to implement with its future vehicles co-developed with Ford.

Welcome t0 2016…

So there you have it. These are just some of the biggest stories to kick off 2016. Whether you look at the continued roll out of affordable, longer-range EVs or the burgeoning field of semi-autonomous vehicles, one thing is certain: we are living in a new golden era of human transport last seen at the dawn of the aviation age, and before that, the original automobile with the introduction of Ford’s Model T.

Even more exciting, however, is the rate of change today: while autonomous vehicles were but a figment of automotive firms’ imaginations — let alone in the public’s minds — just a few years ago, Tesla’s Autopilot introduction in late 2015 officially ushered in this exciting new era, and 2016 is sure to go out with an exponentially larger bang than the year we leave behind us.

Here’s to 2016, and an eye on 2017 ahead….


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