Lyfts, Drones and Budd-e EVs, Oh Yeah!

General Motors President Dan Ammann predicts the automotive industry will change more in the next five years than it has in the last 50.  Automakers and suppliers worldwide are developing and embracing next-generation technologies, processes and services like never before with virtually every new car introduced loaded with breakthrough features and functions. 

The rapid pace of change was underscored at this year’s CES. The event, held in Las Vegas in early January, itself has transformed over the years with the auto industry taking center stage alongside the latest computers, TVs, smartphones and other assorted gadgets and gizmos—a growing number of which are making their way into new cars and trucks almost as soon as they are available to consumers. 

In fact, CES is beginning to rival major auto shows in terms of product announcements and industry buzz. Automakers are starting to unveil their latest concept cars and production models in Las Vegas, as well as advanced mobility projects that could determine the future of the auto industry. 

GM’s Ammann, for example, made his comments at a press conference announcing a $500 million investment in Lyft Inc., the San Francisco-based rival to Uber in the emerging ride-sharing market. As part of the deal, GM gets access to Lyft’s 7 million customers and its mobile app that matches drivers with passengers, coordinates routes and automates payments. GM also is making its vehicles—including the upcoming Chevrolet Bolt EV previewed at CES—available as short-term rentals for Lyft drivers. The partners hope to eventually launch an on-demand network of autonomous vehicles that teams Lyft software with GM’s self-driving vehicle technology.

Not to be outdone, Ford used CES to announce 30 new global mobility programs that CEO Mark Fields says will better position it within the $5.4-trillion-a-year transportation services industry. Included in the new initiatives are programs to link cars with various “smart home” systems, next-generation prototype autonomous cars, a car-sharing test fleet in London and a drone-to-vehicle development challenge. 

That’s right, drones. As in tiny, remote-controlled flying objects. Among the applications Ford envisions are first responders to natural disasters controlling drones from the cab of an F-150 equipped with the company’s latest Sync 3 touchscreen to identify and map emergency trouble spots. 

Another CES star was Volkswagen’s Budd-e concept vehicle, which on the surface resembles a modern version of the company’s iconic Microbus van. But underneath is something much more important to the carmaker’s post-dieselgate future: a modular architecture for electric vehicles. The company plans to use the platform to carry a range of EVs across several VW Group brands starting in 2019. 

The Budd-e concept also is designed to connect with a host of other network-ready home and office devices. Another possibility, VW says, is turning the vehicle into a mobile mailbox that authorized personnel can access for package deliveries. 

Meanwhile, California-based startup Faraday Future took the wraps off its first concept vehicle. And it was a high-powered beauty. The Batmobile-like FFZERO1, which rides on a modular platform the company hopes to parlay into a series of electric vehicles in coming years, produces a heart-stomping 1,000 hp and can zoom from 0-60 mph in less than three seconds with an estimated top speed of 200 mph. 

Other noteworthy announcements and introductions at CES: 
  • Audi’s Fit Driver system, which uses health-related information from wearable devices to tweak interior settings—including seat massage functions and alerting authorities to potential medical emergencies.
  • A pair of BMW i8-based concept sports cars—one without conventional doors and another that replaces rearview mirrors with video cameras.
  • A partnership between Microsoft and Volvo that promises to let motorists remotely access various vehicle functions (door locks, lights, HVAC, navigation, horn) by speaking commands into a smartphone or wearable device.

A host of tech companies also unveiled new products and services at CES. And they all are betting that what they showed in Vegas won’t stay there.