Mercedes-Benz concept car, Toyota Woven City land at CES 2020

Mercedes-Benz captured the imagination of visitors if not the hard realities of future mobility with its concept car at CES 2020. Inspired by the Avatar movie, the all-electric vehicle was driven slowly along the Vegas strip with the ability to steer sideways on four independent wheels. (Mercedes-Benz)

North Hall at CES 2020 featured vehicle technology, and there were multiple futuristic vehicles to ponder, including the Avatar movie-inspired entry from Mercedes-Benz.

Called VISION AVTR, the concept vehicle was based on motifs in the science fiction blockbuster. The name also refers to Advanced Vehicle Transformation and is designed as a vision of Mercedes-Benz designers, engineers and trend researchers for mobility in the distant future. 

During a brief  presentation, Chief Designer Gorden Wagener said it might be a vehicle design for up to 100 years in the future. At least Mercedes-Benz gets kudos for thinking ahead!

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The car actually drives and was taken on a slow spin along the Vegas Strip with a police escort in the evening. All four wheels turn with their own electric motors, so it can drive sideways. It has combined power of 350 kW and is designed to take just 15 minutes to charge with a range of more than 700 kilometers (about 435 miles). This video gives you a good impression of how it looks and moves.

Several reporters exclaimed that the vehicle stole the show. My niece would ask, “What is it good for?” and I guess you’d have to say VISION AVTR is meant to inspire us all, and especially engineers.

Sony also surprised everybody with an electric concept car, the Vision-S, which comes with 33 sensors and widescreen displays. It seems decidedly more like something we’d see in a few years instead of a few decades. What made it unusual was that it was presented by Sony, a company with zilch previous car experience but plenty of history with TVs and PlayStations.

Amazon’s booth featured something even more down-to-earth, an electric-powered pickup from Rivian called the R1T, now available for pre-order starting at $69,000. (Shipping is end of 2020.) It features quad motors and up to 400 miles of range and a bunch of cool outdoorsy features like a wading depth of three feet.

Christian Hubbell, software engineer, told me it has two LiDARs, five radar sensors, 10 ultrasound and 10 camera sensors. And, yes, it functions with Alexa voice control, which is why Amazon had it in its booth. Also, Rivian will be producing 100,000 delivery vehicles for Amazon in the next five years under a deal announced in September.

For assisted driving and futuristic autonomous vehicles, LiDAR is under some debate, but Hubbell told me, “We believe in LiDAR. It’s required for the job we do.” Arguably, there are more off-road scenarios where precise and redundant sensing capabilities are necessary.

RELATED: To LiDAR or not to LiDAR

All those sensors will help a futuristic vehicle collect data about hazards and conditions as it travels along. 

One thing that futurists are worried about is how autonomous vehicles will adapt to highways where many cars are not autonomous. How will they communicate?

One suggested solution was shown at CES from Valerann, which showcased its M1 product, a disc-like solar-powered highway lane divider that is a combination of illumination and sensors to collect data about vehicle movement and road surface conditions. The data gets sent to a Valerann gateway where it can be shared with highway safety departments. With a collision ahead or ice on the road, the device could flash red for non-connected vehicles and AVs alike.

Sensors and components and more

Even beneath the level of commercially available products, hundreds of companies at CES 2020 showed off sensors and other components for smart driving and industrial uses.

ST Microelectronics showcased 55 new and future components and related products in a private venue for analysts and reporters, including a single chip transceiver auto radar to cover 76 to 81 GHz frequencies, as well as a six-axis inertial measure unit to keep track of a vehicle’s position and movements.

One ST technology that could be used in industrial settings and possibly even in futuristic vehicles was a 2.5 Gbps wireless data link. The ST60A2 transceiver can be used to replace cables and connectors transmitting data through the air and some solid materials at a short distance. As it was showcased, it could be used as a data link between video wall panels, but it could be used for joints in robots where a cable would fray and weaken after repeated movements.

Maxim Integrated also announced a slate of auto-related products, including a wireless battery management system to replace traditional wired connections between battery packs and modules. The company also announced the only single integrated circuit for battery monitoring and cell balancing to prevent the risk of overcharging.

Also, a new display power management IC was announced to allow designers to increase the number of cockpit displays in a vehicle. It can be used to replace four or five different ICs. 

CES 2020 boasted more than 175,000 visitors and thousands of exhibitors. Many companies focused on present-day technologies, but some companies chose to forego the practical for the more visionary

In addition to the Mercedes-Benz concept car of the next 100 years, there was the Hyundai and Uber S-AI flying taxi, with flight demonstrations expected in 2020.

RELATED: Hyundai and Uber want to fly you to work

Focus on the future broadly

I’ve been attending CES for more than 10 years, and it was surprising this year to visit center hall and not see both Intel and Microsoft erect large booths with plenty of futuristic technologies. They still had a big presence at CES, but in other venues and in keynotes and presentations.

A couple of futuristic technologies were only touched upon briefly, almost for dramatic effect. In one central location, IBM installed a quantum computer in a 15-foot-tall glass case labeled simply IBM Q System One. (It has appeared in previous years at CES, but with a different display.) With its gold fittings and connected tubes it hung serenely and ghostly in its case, almost asking visitors to raise further queries. IBM also announced it is adding Delta Airlines, Goldman Sachs and Los Alamos to its Q network.

Separately, Akia Toyoda told reporters about Toyota’s plans to build a prototype futuristic town near Mount Fuji in Japan. Called the Woven City,it will be a testbed for future technologies, including hydrogen fuel cells and autonomic vehicles. It will be built on a complete virtual reality design first to test theories and initially house 2,000 people on a 175-acre site in the next few years.

Woven City “will be one small but hopefully big step to making the world a better place,” Toyoda said.

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