|Crowds gather to see a BMW concept vehicle at the BMW Group news conference Wednesday at CES in Las Vegas. (Photo: Walden Kirsch/Intel Corporation)|
But in the last four years, that road has gotten crowded.
The Consumer Electronics Show has served as a leading indicator of the growing interest in self-driving tech, eventually welcoming to what traditionally was a gadget-fest more than a dozen automakers. Two years ago, Ford CEO Mark Fields even delivered the keynote, a spotlight previously reserved for the likes of Bill Gates.
This year, CES, which wraps here Sunday, again puts a spotlight on the mounting competition between not just the automakers but also the suppliers vying to provide the high-tech components that allow vehicles to navigate through a world of obstacles.
It's clear now that engineers are able to make cars drive themselves. The bigger issue is how to scale this technology in a way that finds it both culturally embraced and scientifically sound — and is cost effective.
As tech companies such as Nvidia, Intel, Harman join major auto brands such Audi, BMW and Volvo — 500 auto-tech companies large and small came to CES this year — in showing off their chips, sensors and smart cars, one has to wonder if this is a winner-take-all contest or if we're creating competing standards that could delay the arrival of a self-driving future.
"There's a lot of desire to be the ones who can get there first and monetize this market for self-driving cars and it's causing almost a frenetic activity across the automotive industry, both from automakers and from tech companies," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book.
If the various self-driving car booths here had a singular mission, it was to showcase how much safer the driving world can be thanks to technology.
Auto parts supplier Delphi Automotive gave reporters rides in a 2017 Audi Q5 SUV. Its self-driving system was developed with sensors made by Mobileye and chips from Intel that automatically avoided a collision without input from its driver.
"I see the potential for zero accidents and mobility for all simply because drivers have been taken out of the transportation equation," said Doug Davis, who leads Intel's automated driving group.
Many automakers have set an eventual goal of zero deaths in their vehicles, remarkable considering that 30,000 die each year in the U.S. and more than a million worldwide.
The competition to produce technology that can help car companies reach that milestone is intensifying quickly.
AT&T, Intel, Nvidia: latest names in self-driving
AT&T announced at CES that it was working with Delphi and Ford on improving vehicle communication with other cars and infrastructure. AT&T is also building a self-driving test center in Michigan with the American Center for Mobility.
Intel and Mobileye are working with BMW to deploy 40 self-driving BMWs by the second half of 2017, the companies said here Wednesday. Intel, which announced that it plans to invest in high-definition mapping-firm Here, also is developing autonomous driving hardware and software platforms that could serve as a standard for other innovators to adopt.
Meanwhile, Intel competitor Nvidia announced at CES Wednesday that it had landed Germany's ZF Group as its first customer for a car-computing platform powered by its chips that boasts both machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities. Big names in the chip game such as Qualcomm and AMD are also in the hunt.
"We are going to see cars become the next major platform to battle over for the semiconductor makers," said Bob O'Donnell, president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research.
Samsung, too, became a major player in car connectivity and autonomous driving with its November $8 billion acquisition of Harman, which has its own auto tech expertise and relationships with automakers. "It is by far the hottest area in terms of tech," O'Donnell said.
In Harman's demonstration area at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the company showed off all the various aspects of autonomous vehicles, including smart ride-sharing cars that adapt the car's settings, display and personal audio zones based on riders' profiles.
Another self-driving car Harman showcased offers riders a fully-immersive IMAX-style projection and sound system. Also on display was cybersecurity software to protect your car from hackers. Harman's partners in its autonomous car-tech quest include Apple, Daimler Chrysler, Google, IBM and Microsoft.
All this collaboration would seem to bode well, but the truth is even those deeply enmeshed in the self-driving car world believe there are many miles to be driven before the masses enjoy this breakthrough.
"No one company can do everything," said Dinesh Paliwal, Harman CEO and Chairman. Even though, "the autonomous car is almost here, we are 10 to 15 years out from the day when you have the majority of the cars with smarts that interact with each other through the cloud."
In the meantime, expect auto-tech breakthroughs to trickle down into new vehicles in the form of increasingly sophisticated driver-assist features, just as driver-assisted parking and automatic braking have so far.
And along the way, some companies may fall to the wayside, as did some in the transition from traditional cell phones to today's smartphones.
"The next 10 years is going to be as influential in the car and personal transportation world as the smartphone has been in the past ten years," Autotrader's Brauer said. "You are going to see companies disappear because they can't adapt quickly enough."
O'Donnell agrees and expects the industry to coalesce around multiple approaches. "It's an exciting area and it’s clear no one owns it. Frankly, it's big enough there may be multiple players."