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The biggest driverless car news from CES and Detroit Auto Show

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Concept cars and pilot projects provide a glimpse of a more automated future

The BMW Inside Future concept
The BMW Inside Future concept

After the rapid-fire news coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week and the ongoing Detroit Auto Show, the world of driverless and automated mobility has been flooded with concept cars, pilot programs, and mobility services this month. As automakers and technology companies continue to stake their respective claims within the rapidly shifting world of transportation, more and more models of how our transportation system will look are beginning to take shape. Here’s a quick overview of the big announcements.

John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, debuts a customized Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid
John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, debuts a customized Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid at the Detroit Auto Show
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Minivans rarely make big ripples at the Detroit Auto show. But a new driverless model designed by Waymo, the Google/Alphabet self-driving spin-off, generated a lot of attention from attendees. Built by Fiat Chrysler, the converted Pacifica offers a tangible example of the technology company’s new market strategy, focusing on developing driverless technology and licensing it to automakers. Waymo also has plans to develop a radar-and-sensor kit that could be integrated into conventional vehicles. This repositioning of Waymo as a supplier and turnkey solution for automakers has enticed Honda to begin discussions about licensing technology. The company plans to start testing the vans on public roads near Mountain View, California, and Phoenix, Arizona, later this month.

Can cars teach themselves to drive? Mobileye, an Israeli technology company, will begin testing a new take on driverless cars in the United States later this year that will focus on reinforcement learning. Announced at CES, the tests, in partnership with BMW and Intel, will feature a learning system that allows vehicles to constantly improve their navigation and decision-making, to interact better with human drivers and alter their behavior. The company also plans on starting an AV bus pilot program in San Ramon, California.

Trendy autonomous vehicles designs were incredibly popular at CES, from the sensor-laden FF91 concept car by Tesla-competitor Faraday Future, and Chrysler’s Portal concept, a ride designed “by millennials, for millennials” that includes a selfie cam and facial recognition tech to automatically update entertainment preferences inside the vehicle. Honda’s snug NeuV concept car crammed three trends—driverless technology, ride-sharing, and electric vehicles—onto its tiny frame. According to company spokespeople, in the future, the vehicle will operate as part of a ride-sharing service while the owner is at home or at work.

Chrysler Portal concept car
An autonomous self-driving concept vehicle called Portal is displayed at the Chrysler booth at CES 2017 at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
David Becker/Getty

BMW’s concept model, the BMW Inside Future, offered a more comfortable look at a driverless future, with a fold-away steering wheel, backseat screen for entertainment, touch-free HoloActive control system (a small step towards Minority Report), and even a bookshelf, for those retro riders who don’t want to stare at screens throughout their commute. It all points towards the possibility of autonomous vehicles becoming a new kind of third place. In less speculative news, General Motors announced that its developing fully autonomous versions of the Chevy Bolt, the brand’s all-electric subcompact model.

Toyota’s Concept-i concept car
Toyota’s Concept-i concept car

The Concept-i car from Toyota offered a sleek, sci-fi look at the driverless future, though it still clings to the concept of a steering wheel. The car also features the company’s artificial intelligence assistant, Yui, which can help drivers perform routine tasks such as turning on and off the radio. Yui, as well as the lack of touch screens on the interior, point to a gradualist approach from the Japanese automaker: with true autonomy still a long ways away, using digital assistants and more deliberate design to improve safety offers a more practical road towards integrating technology into automobiles. Ford, which showed off its Fusion hybrid autonomous vehicle, is taking a similar approach, integrating Alexa with the new test model, while Nissan and BMW plan to integrate Microsoft’s Cortana assistant.

Looking beyond all the high-tech gadgets on display on the CES convention center floor, the city of Las Vegas announced that it’s testing a new autonomous, fully electric shuttle, the first such test in the nation. The ARMA Shuttle, developed by NAVYA and Keolis, debuted during CES. The shuttle, which can hit a top speed of 28-miles-per-hour, is meant to run fixed routes or function as an on-demand ride service, and offers more proof that autonomy may help make buses more relevant to contemporary commuters. Flashy cities seem to have a thing for driverless cars; earlier this week, Beverly Hills, California, petitioned to become a testing ground for driverless technology.

Ford followed up on its big announcement about investing in electric vehicle technology by presenting a vision of future mobility, focused on how driverless cars and smart city technology will change urban transportation. While we’re still a ways off, and many would argue, have more immediate infrastructure challenges to tackle, the video points to where the technological race may lead us in the near future.