LAS VEGAS – Perhaps it was only fitting that I got to a CES panel discussion called “The Connected Car – Here and Now” in a very-connected Tesla.

The fleet of Tesla taxis, a complimentary service at CES 2022  this year, is sending attendees (especially late ones like me) through an underground track to the various wings of the gigantic, truly un-knowable Las Vegas Convention Center. The drive was not an autonomous one, by the way – maybe next year.

Next to the driver, a tablet-sized display provided loads of information about our three-minute journey: details about the road and its surroundings, indications of “driver assist” deployment, our exact location on a map, and an eagle-eye view of our destination – along with the usual music selection, time, temperature, and the ETA likelihood that I’d make it to the presentation on time.

A view from the back seat. Connected cars offer all kinds of data to drivers, from music options to exact positioning.

The arrangement of so much data, and the ability to receive it immediately, felt very smartphone-like.

At the “Connected Car” session on Wednesday, three panelists spoke about the automotive industry's response to customers who have gotten used to life "on demand," who have grown accustomed to receiving the services they want, when they want them. The experts discussed a range of technologies, from autonomous trucks to digital chassis, that satisfy a driver’s need for customizability and quick results in the car – two characteristics promised by the devices in our pockets.

“All of us, as consumers, expect our cars to be an extension of the lives that we live on our smartphones,” said Nakul Duggal, Senior V.P. and General Manager of Automotive at the San Diego, CA-based semiconductor manufacturer Qualcomm.

Duggal spoke on the CES panel with Cheng Lu, CEO of the California-based autonomous truck maker TuSimple, and Eric Cesa, V.P. and General Manager at ETAS, a German company that manufactures embedded technology for vehicles.

With its semiconductors as a core component, Qualcomm currently offers a cloud-connected “digital chassis” known as Snapdragon. The suite includes module services that can be adopted in full or à la carte: 5G connections, precise navigational positioning, an infotainment display, and automated driver-assistance systems (ADAS), to name a few.

Car companies have already dabbled with the idea of providing add-on features via subscription. In 2020, for example, BMW offered “digital personalization” services  that could be added after-sale, ranging from heated seats to ADAS updates sent over the air – a model that Duggal expects manufacturers to tinker with as they research consumer behavior.

“What we’re seeing across the board is that automakers are now very focused on owning the customer experience inside the cabin," said Duggal. "Because that is the one space in time where automakers can build a very close relationship.”

Technologies like the digital chassis aim at a similar personalization, according to the Qualcomm V.P.

“The digital chassis of the vehicle is going to take the personality of what you plan to use that platform for,” said Duggal.

If automakers across-the-board want to create a phone-like user experience in the vehicle, however, questions still remain.

Are these features being developed on the vehicle? Are they being made virtually? Are the tools on an actual PC, or are they in the cloud on somebody else’s server?

Unlike with phones, which have a kind of settled software among the majority of devices, the auto industry has not yet decided on the foundational pieces of computing code, according to Cesa, the G.M at ETAS.

“These things are in the process of evolving right now in order to meet the demands and the expectations that the customers have on the industry providing them with this sort of [smartphone-like] user experience,” said Cesa.

Self-Driving Trucks Answer 'On Demand' Demands

Cheng Lu of TuSimple is less interested in the unique preferences of a driver, mostly because he wants trucks to operate without one.

Just this month a TuSimple lorry completed an autonomous 80-mile run from Tucson to Phoenix .

Lu and the self-driving-truck team aim to solve on-demand demands by focusing on achieving what’s known as "Level-4" autonomy, or driving without the need for human interaction.

Trucks ship more than 70% of the nation's freight  by weight. Moving that supply reliably and quickly is important, as consumers expect their Amazon and e-commerce orders to arrive on time.

The TuSimple autonomous truck (Credit: TuSimple)

“We want our goods delivered to us today, not tomorrow, and definitely not a week from now,” said Lu, “And that puts pressure on drivers, trucks, and the whole supply chain.”

The centerpiece of TuSimple technology is a centralized computer, filled with artificial-intelligence modules. The A.I. components are trained with imagery and data coming from the truck's 10-plus cameras, lidars, radar, and GPS.

The data enables the trucks to make intelligent decisions that increase the chances of a successful drive – and of you getting your online order on time.

The seat you get when you miss the early Tesla.

“We can tell these vehicles to make three right hand turns instead of a left-hand turn, because it’s 5% safer,” said Lu.

The biggest value proposition, according to Lu, is that an efficient, autonomous truck fleet offers freight capacity when you need it.

“We’re used to streaming on-demand videos. We’re used to on-demand cloud computing,” said Lu. “We want to create this network of autonomous trucks, terminals, and lanes, and it’s on-demand freight capacity.”

That kind of network is easier to accomplish, with trucks, given how important the task is of sending and receiving goods on time, on demand, said the TuSimple CEO.

Partners are more likely to rally around a disruptive technology like autonomous trucking, given the need for reliable shipping and supply-chain improvements, as well as the economic boost offered by higher sales.

Given the on-demand expectations from consumers, even ones who need a fast ride around the Las Vegas Convention Center, the field is wide open.

“The market is so big. The pie is very big," said Lu. There’s plenty of pie to go around.”