When you step back and think about it, the auto industry is a good proxy to just how much change technology and digitisation has created. With this in mind, I ventured to the Los Angeles Auto Show in December to see what’s just around the corner, and what’s already arrived.
First held in 1907, the LA Auto Show has showcased model launches from the who’s who of vehicle manufacturing. This year alone over 25 models were unveiled for the first time globally. But it’s not just the heads-of-state brands taking centre stage anymore: there’s a slew of new players and they’re ready to compete, with a focus on design, electricity and autonomous driving.
At first glance, the Icona Nucleus design concept looks more than just futuristic. Icona’s manager for interior design and product design, Andre Frey, shared with me how a fully self-driving vehicle manifests itself when you leave behind the traditional vehicle interior, a world of opportunity presents.
“We started off by thinking ‘what is it people would like to do in a vehicle like this [when they don’t have to drive]’? They’d like to rest, they’d like to entertain themselves, watch a movie, they’ll need to work… especially in markets like China where there is a chauffeur culture and traffic means long commutes,” he says.
In order to maximise the interior space, the Icona Nucleus uses four hub engines – one for each wheel. While this type of vehicle manifests the autonomous future that’s long been promised, we’re not quite there yet. “The biggest point of contention still remains how to solve the problem of motion sickness,” Frey says, especially in rear facing seats.
Walking the 71,000m2 of vehicles across the LA Convention Centre, it was clear just how enormous the transition is from traditional petrol and diesel powered cars, even in the United States, where gas still remains fairly cost-effective. Toyota’s huge display unveiled the 2019 instalment of its poster-child Prius Hybrid as well as the Mirai – a hydrogen powered car with only water emissions. Tesla was prominent with its showcase of the Model S, 3 and Model X, while Audi pulled the curtains back on its stunning e-tron.
But it was upstart Rivian that caught my eye with its fully electric R1T™ Truck and R1S™ SUV. As attendees crowded around Rivian’s two models, I caught up with its strategy head Patrick Hunt to learn a little more.
“There used to be a perspective that EVs [electric vehicles] had to be heavily compromised – often unattractive, low range vehicles,” he says. “Tesla has shown the world that no, they can be great looking and fast, fun and have decent range.”
While Tesla may have shifted the perception for some, Hunt points out “there’s still a perception that EVs are on-road, clean, precious things that you wouldn’t load up, get dirty and take anywhere. We think that’s wrong. EVs are in fact very well suited to that.
“It’s that point of view that brought us to this all electric pickup truck and SUV; intended to get dirty and go anywhere”.
With its futuristic curves, it would be easy to confuse the the Rivian range as just another concept, however Hunt was quick to call out that the design is being taken into production in late 2020. “What you’re looking at is a driveable show car,” he says.
Among driving purists, the question of self-driving cars is still a contentious one. “I don’t know… I just love to drive…especially the Porsches, there’s not much better,” says John Airdrie, a fellow Australian visiting the LA Auto Show. Though even purists can see the convenience of Level 3 and 4 automated driving systems (see below table): “It’s a tough one for me, I just love driving, but the convenience for long drives – especially the safety aspect when it comes to fatigue – is a big positive,” Airdrie says.
While the Icona Nucleus was a Level 5 concept, Rivian’s 2020 arrival will feature Level 3 ‘conditional automation’. “To be clear what that means… hands off the wheel eyes off the road; the vehicle’s going to tell you when it needs you,” Rivian’s Hunt says.
Rivian will use a proprietary lidar, radar, ultrasonic and camera system to make this happen. Hunt says the current hardware is unlikely to take the vehicle to Level 4 automation, however was quick to stress the cloud-first and software upgradable aspects of the Rivian’s range.
Tesla is taking a different approach. “If you have a Tesla built in past 2 years, definitely try Navigate on Autopilot. It will blow your mind. Automatically passes slow cars & takes highway interchanges & off-ramps,” founder Elon Musk tweeted, hinting at just how much the hardware in models nearly two years old is capable of with software upgrades.
Already testing traffic lights, stop signs & roundabouts in development software. Your Tesla will soon be able to go from your garage at home to parking at work with no driver input at all.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 9, 2018
Whether you’re a purist who loves a classic car, the smell of gas and the thrill of changing gears, or a commuter wondering how long until there will no longer be a driver behind the wheel of your Uber, one thing is for sure, big changes are on the way in the world of the humble automobile.