Is 2017 Year of the Autonomous Car?

Autonomous car Hyundai
Home is where the car is. Hyundai's Mobility Vision fuses the two. Picture: Hyundai
Car, meet AI. Picture: Nvidia

What do you get when a company known for computer graphics cards teams up with a company famous for luxury cars? Well, you end up with a car that can think and drive. Presumably, it will also be a safer and better driver than humans. At CES 2017, Nvidia and Mercedes-Benz announced a partnership to drive out in a car enhanced with artificial intelligence. Mind you, this is not some futuristic goal — this car might be here, at least as a working prototype, within the next 12 months. Nvidia Founder and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang believes AI will revolutionise the future of automobiles and the two companies already have teams co-located with each other — in Sunnyvale, US and Stuttgart, Germany. Interestingly, Nvidia is also working with Audi to bring you an autonomous car by 2020.

Blue rays optional. A cloud-based future with Microsoft’s Connected Vehicle Platform. Picture: Microsoft

Also at CES, Microsoft announced a broader Connected Vehicle Platform that aims to help automakers transform cars with a set of cloud-based services, turning them into “custom connected driving experiences”. Microsoft says this “living, agile platform” will address five core scenarios: predictive maintenance, improved in-car productivity, advanced navigation, customer insights and help building autonomous driving capabilities. Renault-Nissan is already onboard, while a public preview of the platform will be available later this year. Here’s a YouTube video of how these smart cars will work. And yes, Cortana will be around to listen to your woes when you are stuck in a traffic jam.

Incidentally, this year’s CES, which has been dubbed the Car Electronics Show, is flowing with smart car announcements. Faraday Future finally unveiled its sensor-stuffed FF91, which has the fastest acceleration in electric vehicles and comes packed with a laundry list of sensors. BMW revealed it was bringing Cortana to cars, while Ford will rely on Amazon’s Echo tech. Meanwhile, Hyundai not only showed off the Ioniq autonomous hatchback but went totally bonkers with its Mobility Vision concept, where the car is an integral part of your smart home.

Toyota’s Concept-i. Picture: Toyota

Besides, Nissan announced it has turned to NASA for help — the technology that powers the Mars Rover will soon make its way into Nissan’s autonomous vehicles, which will include an upcoming Leaf electric car that can zip over highways while you doze behind the steering wheel. Toyota too is out with the Concept-i, which comes with AI nicknamed Yui, purportedly designed to learn from and grow with the driver. Hopefully, it will be smart enough not to learn bad driving habits from whoever’s behind the wheel.

Volvo’s self-driving cars are calling you. Picture: Volvo

Looking beyond CES, Volvo has already committed to putting 100 self-driving cars in the hands of “real-world customers” this year in Sweden. The company claims this is the world’s first large-scale autonomous driving project, and you can already experience some of the high-tech features in its existing line-up. The Volvo XC90, for example, is smart enough to automatically brake at intersections. And if you are wondering what to do with all that “extra time” you will be getting when you hop into a car that not only drives by itself but also finds a vacant spot on its own and then parks itself, Volvo has some rather retro-cool suggestions — while the autonomous car is driving you around, you could read good ol’ newspapers.

Farewell, strange-looking Google cars. Here come Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans. Picture: Waymo

But what about that other big tech company and its mega plans for taking over the world with an army of self-driving cars? Well, last December, Google’s self-driving car project was spun out as a separate company called Waymo and currently it is busy rolling out autonomous Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans. One hundred of these vehicles will hit the road in test markets and, according to Waymo CEO John Krafcik, the result will be valuable insights into “how people of all ages, shapes, and group sizes experience fully self-driving technology”.

To sum it up, 2017 is indeed going to be a busy year for smart cars and autonomous driving tech. We may not be buying self-driving cars from an outlet in Dubai Mall this year, but we are tantalisingly closer to a reality where semi-autonomous and even fully-autonomous cars are not only probable but also practical.

Does that mean we can call 2017 the Year of the Autonomous Car? Well, it’s tempting. Especially given that technology writers love to declare a year as the sole property of some fancy trending tech. So we have had the Year of IoT, the Year of Wearables, the Year of Virtual Reality, the Year of 3D Printers, the Year of 3D TV… no, scratch the last two out! They were more hype and less substance.

So perhaps the safer option is to add an asterisk before going ahead and declaring 2017 the Year of the Autonomous Car*.

*Conditions apply.