The CES Time Machine

Panelists at CES show restraint in overhyping self-driving vehicles, but are bullish on 5G.

JamieIn the North Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center of CES 2017 last month, people donned virtual reality goggles and climbed into autonomous cars to take a virtual ride. In the Sands Convention Center they 3D scanned 360° models of themselves to 3D print. In meeting rooms and private venues across the vast technology conference, companies demonstrated how artificial intelligence and data analytics are changing the world.

I saw a Honda motorcycle balance itself and even follow its driver. Pocket-sized, foldable Dobby Drones hovered around in formation, taking video that you might want to watch on LG’s W7, a new wallpaper-thin OLED TV. A man from Hyundai wearing an exoskeleton on his legs climbed steps to take the stage, promising mobility to the disabled. Watches, shoes, belts, glasses, bras and suits were all infused with sensors to track your life. People wearing VR headsets reached out for invisible steering wheels in the Dassault Systèmes booth, others gasped in surprise as they virtually jumped out of a plane during Intel’s press conference.

Outside the convention centers, reality set in. Long taxi and shuttle lines gave way to traffic jams as more than 175,000 CES attendees tried to make their way to restaurants, hotels and casinos. Uber and Lyft drivers were working overtime, taxi wranglers screamed curses at people parking in no parking zones, shuttle drivers laid on horns as cars cut them off. The vision of quiet autonomous electric vehicles efficiently moving through smart, connected cities that seemed so real inside the conference’s walls seemed like a distant dream just yards away.

There was an almost overwhelming dichotomy between the CES future and state-of-the-art technology as I rushed from appointment to appointment, trying to find my way around the conference that sprawled across multiple venues using a mixture of signs, “you are here” maps, the CES app on my phone, helpful humans and the Google Maps app. As I lamented the fact that my contact lenses couldn’t overlay what I was seeing with glowing waypoints leading to my next meeting, I was reminded of the Louis C.K. bit where he takes on consumers unhappy with the speed of their cellphones: “Give it a second! It’s going into space. Can you give it a second to get back from space?”

The CES Future is Always Almost Here

Consumers don’t want to give it a second, and soon they won’t have to. “5G will have an impact similar to the introduction of electricity or the automobile, affecting entire economies and benefiting entire societies,” said Qualcomm CEO Steven Mollenkopf during his CES keynote.

That may sound grandiose and about what you’d expect the head of a wireless chip company to say, but I find it hard to argue with him. In a connected world, the multi-gigabit-per-second data rates and latencies as low as 1 millisecond expected from 5G wireless will open doors in real-time VR, on-demand cloud computing, remote navigation, wearables that respond to medical emergencies and more. Design engineers should be ready for 5G. Like autonomous automobiles, many prognosticators point to 2020 as the year 5G will be available to the public.

Aside from Mollenkopf’s proclamation and the amazing gadgets on display, there was a good deal of restraint not far beneath the surface of CES. Autonomous car exhibitors I spoke to did not brush off the considerable hurdles still facing self-driving vehicles (see “CES 2017: In Search of Engineering Tech”), chief among them consumer acceptance and government regulations. Though not everyone thinks regulations are needed just yet.

“Autonomous vehicles are IoT (Internet of Things) and AI (artificial intelligence) all wrapped up together,” said Doug Davis, senior vice president and general manager of the Intel Automated Driving Group during a panel titled “Self-Driving Cars: New Rules of the Road.” That’s a lot to regulate, to be sure. “At this time, we need public-private partnerships and guidance from government agencies, not regulations right away.”

That’s not to say that automakers aren’t bullish on autonomous vehicles. They’ve already invested heartily in them, and with good reason. Consumers always want what’s next. Soon we’ll be complaining about how our self-driving car never takes the most scenic route as it chauffeurs us about.

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Jamie Gooch's avatar
Jamie Gooch

Jamie Gooch is the former editorial director of Digital Engineering.

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