I'm at the Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, and I spent some time with Adam Comeau of DriveSafe, a joint enterprise with his father, Felix. The company makes $200 portable breathalyzers that look like cellphones. Tie one on at a Vegas nightspot, and check your state of inebriation by blowing into the disposable mouthpiece (looking like a dork while doing it). I registered a sober 0.00, reflecting the fact that it was 10 a.m. (Actually, remember, it was Vegas, where the cocktail waitresses stroll at 6 a.m.; I should have been potted.)
“We encourage responsible driving,” Comeau told me. “People will get to know how alcohol affects their particular body type. Age, size, weight, they’re all factors on how you handle it.” If your alcohol level is 0.4 or 0.5 you see an orange screen, and above 0.8 it’s warning-light red. “We suggest you don’t drive [your 205-mph McLaren] when you’re in the orange range,” Comeau said. “The best driver is a sober driver.”
I was thrilled to finally get a chance to drive the electric Chevy Bolt, and was taken around by its director of design, Stuart Norris. It's the little car that could, with a $30,000 price (after incentives), 200-mile range, seven-second zero to 60 times, a capacious back seat (especially for a tiny vehicle) and pin-sharp handling. It's the best thing to come out of Korea since kimchee.
Long-term followers of Car Talk’s blog will know that Ray Magliozzi and I have been advocating for replacing the rear-view mirror with cameras—both because it makes the car more aerodynamic (with better fuel economy) and also because the overall vision is better, with no blind spots. Well, darned if BMW hasn’t taken us up on that, showing an i8 plug-in hybrid at CES with multiple cameras replacing those wind-blocking mirrors.
I think it works brilliantly. BMW’s Philipp Hoffmann, who directs the camera project, gave me a tour. He claimed the system reduces aerodynamic drag to virtually zero, and results in a one-percent reduction in emission of carbon dioxide equivalent. Brilliant. And it reduces accidents.
The show seemed to be all about 3D printing this year. I was asked, by an Irish company, Mcor, to be thrilled by the world’s first “full-colour (they’re Irish, remember) desktop 3D printer.” You may wonder why on earth you’d want one of these, but it’s actually capable of making some seriously cool stuff, like paper horse sculptures that look like antique metal and Disney-type stereo viewers. They don’t actually work, do they?
Volkmar Denner, the head of Bosch’s global brand, told me we’ll soon be seeing wonderful things in automobiles. One theme I saw consistently at CES was anticipation of autonomous driving. If we’re not behind the wheel, what will we be doing?
The cliché is sitting in the back with a cellphone, but that’s yesterday’s thinking. Why look at a tiny screen when the space where the back windows were can be a multi-modal screen 200 times the size? Denner said we’d eventually be making full use of our self-piloted vehicles, controlling stuff with gesture controls, and connecting to our smart homes to control the thermostat, check the security cameras, lock and unlock the doors, and pre-heat the oven. Of course, if we can check the security cameras, we can also have giant Facetime-type conversations with our friends, and that’s coming too.
Some of this is premature, because another theme here at CES is that autonomous driving is not around the corner. “There’s a lot of hype, but it’s much further away than people think,” Denner said. “We have to be realistic. We’re talking about something that is 10 years away.”
In the meantime, we’ll be sneaking up on autonomous driving, with adaptive cruise control (that can come to a full stop and start again), lane keeping, automated highway cruising and various types of self-parking. With sensors on board, Denner said, your car can be constantly scanning for available parking spaces. By 2020, he added, we’ll have fully autonomous exit-to-exit driving. But sitting in back while the car drives? We’ll have to wait for it.