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Zoox unveils custom vehicle for robotaxi deployment in Las Vegas

CES 2024 showcased advanced automotive technology including self-driving vehicles.

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has long been a platform for showcasing cutting-edge automotive technology, particularly in the realm of self-driving vehicles. However, CES 2024 seemed to lack the usual buzz and excitement, possibly due to recent consolidations within the industry.

Despite being more geared towards non-consumer products, CES has become the go-to event for companies specializing in LIDARs, imaging radars, and other sensing solutions. These booths hope to pique the interest of the relatively small number of attendees who are involved in developing advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) and self-driving technologies. Every year, new and improved LIDARs with enhanced specifications, smaller sizes, and lower costs are showcased. While a few companies have secured contracts for larger ADAS-equipped vehicles, most are primarily focused on selling their technology for consumer cars. The ambition remains to become the preferred LIDAR provider for successful self-driving car companies, even though Waymo, the current industry leader, produces its own in-house LIDAR.

Imaging radars, on the other hand, are gaining attention. These radars offer greater horizontal and vertical resolution compared to typical automotive radars, which can barely detect which lane a vehicle is in. While LIDAR provides precise resolution of 0.1 degrees or less (and cameras offer even higher resolution), imaging radars offer a resolution of roughly 1 degree, or possibly 0.5 degrees. This level of resolution allows for the approximation of the location and distance of objects that reflect radar signals, including vehicles, pedestrians, and obstacles. Unlike cameras, radars are not affected by poor weather conditions like fog or rain, and they can even detect objects around corners or through certain obstacles. With their added benefits, imaging radars have caught the interest of almost all automakers, with the exception of Tesla.

There is also a continued interest in advancing camera-based sensing technology. Tesla's approach revolves around cameras and artificial intelligence (AI) to emulate human visual perception. However, a company called Nodar aims to enhance binocular vision for accurately determining the distance to targets, using parallax rather than AI. By installing cameras on the corners of a vehicle, Nodar claims to surpass the capabilities of LIDAR technology in certain aspects.

Perhaps the most significant announcement at CES came from Amazon's self-driving vehicle subsidiary, Zoox. The company displayed one of its custom-designed vehicles and declared its plans to provide robotaxi rides in Las Vegas starting this year. Unlike other autonomous vehicles, Zoox's custom vehicle lacks space for a safety driver, indicating the company's confidence in its technology. Zoox's entry into a real pilot deployment is notable, especially at a time when industry players like Cruise and Argo have faced setbacks, leaving Waymo as the dominant force in the Western market. Zoox's unique 'Robezium' vehicle design, which resembles a shuttle or a toaster, sets it apart from competitors. Boasting a symmetrical shape and features like four-wheel steering, the vehicle offers enhanced maneuverability, ensuring it can navigate challenging situations swiftly.

Beyond passenger-focused autonomous vehicles, CES also showcased autonomous tractors, construction machinery, and other industrial applications from companies like Deere, Hyundai, and Bobcat. Some players have shifted their focus towards smaller, more attainable markets instead of solely pursuing robotaxis. Additionally, the trucking sector has seen an increase in interest, despite its simpler road environment but greater risks due to heavy loads and higher speeds. Aurora, a prominent self-driving technology company, unveiled its finalized hardware design and partnered with Continental to manufacture and install it in trucks for their software. Aurora's long-range LIDAR, acquired from Blackmore, provides speed data for all detected targets, making it suitable for long-haul cargo transportation. While many companies have faced challenges in the trucking industry, Aurora is hopeful that their advanced sensor suite will enable safe and efficient autonomous trucking operations.

As a change of pace, CES attendees had the opportunity to witness the Indy Autonomous race at the Las Vegas Speedway. University teams competed in identical cars, responsible for developing the software and sensors necessary for racing. Although the race involved pairs of cars and lacked the excitement of traditional racing, it presented a unique challenge focused on finding optimal racing lines rather than avoiding pedestrian obstacles. The Technical University of Munich emerged as the winner, demonstrating their expertise in autonomous racing technologies.

CES also featured several electric vertical takeoff and landing (e-VTOL) flying cars, such as the impressive offering from Supernal, spun out of Hyundai. Additionally, Pebble showcased an elegant electric travel trailer, albeit at an expensive price point. The event presented a wide variety of advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) products and concept cars, alongside an array of non-automotive innovations, including transparent TVs and medical devices. Attendees even had the opportunity to experience Elon Musk's Boring Company's Las Vegas Loop, which utilizes human-driven Teslas to transport individuals through tunnels beneath the convention center. Despite criticism, the Loop proved to be a useful transportation solution and provided glimpses into the future potential of transit technology.

Overall, CES 2024 offered a comprehensive overview of the advancements and developments in the automotive industry. From improved LIDAR and imaging radar technologies to ongoing efforts in camera-based sensing and innovative autonomous vehicle designs, the show captured the ongoing progress towards a future of self-driving vehicles. Although some players have faced challenges and shifted their focus, the industry continues to push forward, aiming to make autonomous transportation a reality.

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