Line between transport and tech blurred at CES as dash for data fuels innovation

Toyota reveals plans for 175-acre ‘smart city’ as Uber and Hyundai unveil €1.4bn taxi service

Artificial humans, robot taxis and 8K TVs are grabbing the headlines at CES, as the show tries to stay ahead of trends and remain relevant in a fast-moving industry.

Chinese all-electric carmaker Byton showed off a 48-inch touchscreen dashboard that could be used for video conferencing, watching movies and tracking your fitness. Uber and Hyundai unveiled a flying taxi concept and agreed to pony up $1.5 billion (€1.4 billion) to fund it. Toyota went one better and announced that it would, in effect, build its own crystal ball close to Mount Fuji: a 71-hectare (175-acre) "smart city" powered by hydrogen fuel cells and designed from the ground up for 2,000 residents.

The idea is to give scientists, researchers and Toyota itself “a living laboratory” to observe how residents live a futuristic life with next-generation technology, self-driving automobiles and a host of internet-connected devices.

The plans for “Woven City” look wild, ambitious and rather bizarre. “You may be thinking, ‘has this guy lost his mind. Is he a Japanese version of Willy Wonka?’” said president and CEO of Toyota, Akio Toyoda.


If Toyoda is Willy Wonka, then it raises questions about who will play the role of the Oompa Loompas in this particular tale.

Other announcements were more mundane but still generated some excitement. Lenovo showed off the inside of its foldable €2,248 ThinkPad computer, which goes on sale mid-year, in a bid to instil confidence in a category that has had some technological setbacks. In a demonstration at CES, there was no crease in the display when it's fully unfolded – unlike with the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Lenovo's own forthcoming Motorola Razr smartphone – and it's compatible with a keyboard attachment that mounts on the top of the screen.

Accessory maker Zagg said it is developing a wireless charger with capabilities that Apple has so far failed to master with its cancelled AirPower. The new accessory will power iPhones and other mobile devices regardless of where they are placed on the charging mat, Zagg said.

And Irish company Kastus announced it had partnered with Zagg to bring its antimicrobial surface protection to Zagg's next-gen InvisibleShield screen protectors. With some studies revealing mobile phones can harbour 10 times more bacteria than most toilet seats, the germ-busting surface may bring peace of mind to some.

Harmful bacteria

Kastus, a previous overall winner of the Irish Times Innovation Awards, has developed a coating that is proven to eliminate up to 99.99 per cent of harmful bacteria. That process is applied during the glass manufacturing process and will work for the lifetime of the product.

It’s an important partnership for the Irish company, with Zagg’s global reach a major boost for Kastus.

Away from the product announcements, this consumer electronics show is embracing an increasingly valuable byproduct of the technology revolution: data.

Modern cars roll out of factories packed with mobile connections, powerful processors and a growing suite of sensors, including cameras, radar and microphones. That's turning them into the next information gold mine, rivalling the data-creating capabilities of smartphones. Amazon. com, Intel, Qualcomm and BlackBerry are at the Las Vegas conference this week to pitch data-crunching services and partnerships to an auto industry searching for new revenue streams and business models.

Carmakers are trying to control the data generated by their vehicles and avoid being marginalised by technology giants. It’s a challenge because car companies lack deep software talent and are already battling the incursion of smartphones and related technology. Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto software, installed on vehicle dashboard screens, funnel data to and from smartphones and largely bypass carmakers’ systems.

Intel will announce a new automotive tie-up for its Mobileye unit during CES, adding to existing relationships with Nissan, BMW and Volkswagen. The carmakers use Mobileye's driver-assistance technology and provide the Intel unit with some of the data that those cameras, chips and sensors collect as the vehicles drive around.

Mobileye aggregates this anonymous information to create detailed maps that the carmakers use to enhance their vehicle navigation systems. At CES, Intel showed off a map of Las Vegas created in 24 hours with information from BMW cars that drove around the city over an undisclosed longer period. Intel says such fresh information is more valuable than traditional navigation systems, which use special survey vehicles that collect and send in images and data for updates that can take months. The newer approach has more chance of spotting and avoiding a broken traffic signal or road work, for example.

Intel thinks the data will be really useful for other things, too – a utility company could check on infrastructure without sending workers to every site, for example. Intel predicts the market for such data will be worth as much as $3.5 billion (€3.1 billion) a year by 2030.

McKinsey and Co sees a much larger opportunity. A few years ago, the consulting firm said up to $750 billion (€675 billion) of value would be created from car-related data by 2030. That includes revenue from services like connected maps and targeted advertising, along with the sale and analysis of anonymous information via third parties to reduce costs.

"The value pool includes avoided costs and incremental revenue," McKinsey partner Michele Bertoncello said. "If you monitor a car and you avoid a breakdown or you avoid warranty fraud, you don't generate incremental revenue, but you avoid a cost."

On Monday at CES, cloud-computing giant Amazon Web Services teamed up with BlackBerry, owner of QNX, an operating system that’s widely used in cars. The two companies unveiled a new service that helps carmakers update security and software features, monitor vehicle health, access data from car sensors, build new applications and apply artificial intelligence models to the information.

Chipmaker Qualcomm announced its first chips and software for fully autonomous vehicles at the CES show. Its radio chips already support cellular links for most of the world’s connected cars. The new offering will be available in coming years and will reduce the cost and power needed to develop and run driverless cars, Qualcomm said. The company also rolled out a “car-to-cloud platform”, a package of hardware and software that lets carmakers securely update the software in their vehicles, and offers a way to charge vehicle owners for updates and other services.

Vehicle-generated data is crucial to Ford's future, chief technical officer Ken Washington said. The company's commercial business is working with Digit, a robot designed by Agility Robotics that travels with delivery vehicles, unfolds itself, then carries packages from the curbside to the door. Digit will use data from Ford vehicle sensors to find its way. "We're taking this very seriously," he said. "I watched the internet happen and I watched what happened to businesses that embraced it and those that ignored it."

It's not just about carmakers though. Delta Air Lines chief executive Ed Bastian took to the keynote stage on Tuesday – a spot typically held by a carmaker or traditional technology companies – to outline its plans for the airline of the future.

Machine learning

Delta said it is using artificial intelligence and machine learning to try to reduce delays. Its AI platform “analyses millions of operational data points – from aircraft positions to flight crew restrictions to airport conditions – to create hypothetical outcomes”. There are other benefits: Delta wants passengers to be able to start a movie on one flight and pick up where they left off on the next flight. The airline will test a feature like a “binge button” that would allow a passenger to watch an entire session of a TV show and pilot a programme that will recommend future viewing based on prior viewing behaviour.

Delta said its research shows entertainment can play a key role in helping customers relax while travelling. For example, Bastian said research shows people are more likely to cry when watching a movie in the air versus on the ground because they are in an “elevated emotional state”.

The airline is planning to use technology to shift employees away from rote tasks too. “Our people should not be spending their time taking tickets and scanning boarding passes,” Bastian said.

Delta is working with start-up companies, including one company to keep airplane cabins clean that uses antimicrobial lights and another start-up to help transport and monitor pets.

This year's show also saw the official attendance of Apple, with the company's senior director of global privacy Jane Horvath, tackling another big theme for CES 2020: privacy. She defended the company's use of encryption after recent clashes with law enforcement and politicians over access to information locked on iPhones.

She also called terrorism and child sexual abuse “abhorrent” and stressed that Apple helps law enforcement with investigations every day.

The FBI recently asked Apple to help it access information on iPhones belonging to an alleged gunman who killed three people at a Florida naval base last month. The gunman is dead and the handsets are locked by a password and encrypted, so federal investigators can’t get the device data.

“When the FBI requested information from us relating to this case a month ago we gave them all of the data in our possession and we will continue to support them with the data we have available,” Apple said in a statement on Tuesday.

Apple regularly responds to warrants by giving investigators access to data that is stored on its servers, such as users’ iCloud account information. However, the company has refused in the past to help authorities unlock iPhones to get on-device data.

Apple has used privacy as a key differentiator, consistently pushing the message that its hardware and services are more secure than competitors. At CES, Horvath described the ways Apple minimises data collection, or gathers information that is not tied to specific users. She cited Siri pulling up weather data for person’s city, not their exact latitude and longitude. Horvath also said Apple puts a privacy engineer and a lawyer on each team developing new devices.

She was joined on the panel by Erin Egan, Facebook's chief privacy officer, Susan Shook, Procter and Gamble's global privacy officer, and Rebecca Slaughter, a commissioner at the US federal trade commission.

Apple often appears on panels to discuss its privacy policies, but this is the first time in decades that that company has had an official presence at CES.

Egan said Facebook has "a different business model than Apple, but both business models are privacy protected". Some hardware running Facebook software, including Oculus virtual reality headsets, process data on device, Egan added. But she said that many Facebook features around sharing require cloud-based processing. Egan also said Facebook only collects information it needs to operate its services and work with advertisers. User privacy is protected on Facebook, Egan said. Slaughter disputed that assertion.

CES has yet to close its doors, with the event set to draw to a close on Friday. By that time, about 175,000 people will have passed through the show.

– Additional reporting: Financial Times, Reuters, Bloomberg

The weird and wonderful of CES

The robot suitcase that trails your every move around the airport was just one of a number of robotic bags on display at CES. The $800 (€720) bag is production ready though, and has been adapted so it will suit every airline. It is fully trackable, has a removable battery and uses a combination of computer vision and sensors to follow you around the airport.

No one likes taking out the rubbish, so Knectek Labs has designed a new bin that will do it for you – sort of. The smart bin will seal the bag, eliminate odours and even replace the bag once it ejects the full one. basically, it takes care of all the things you hate – including alerting you when the bin has been overfilled.

The female-focused sex toy that started a revolution in 2019 finally made it to the show floor. Lora DiCarlo went public last year with claims the show had revoked an innovation award for its Ose massager, and banned it from the annual showcase, citing rules that allowed it to disqualify entries deemed "obscene" or "immoral". The CTA, which runs CES, said the product should not have been placed in the robotics and drone category and that was the reason for its disqualification. Regardless, Ose made it to CES 2020.

If you ever wanted your own version of Star Wars' BB8, Samsung's latest robotic companion is probably the closest you'll get. Ballie is designed to control your smart home and the small robot is designed to be a companion while also keeping your smart home running smoothly. Spill on the kitchen floor? Ballie will take a look, and then alert the appropriate smart cleaner to take care of it. It will also use its camera to capture memories for you, take notes when you need it, and generally roll around looking as cute as a ball-shaped robot can.

Ivanka Trump talk draws mixed reaction 
When the dust dies down and CES 2020 departs Las Vegas, what will the overriding memory of the event be? The inclusion of Ivanka Trump as a speaker at an event that has been taken to task over gender representation in the past was a key talking point in the run-up to the annual show, with many questioning the president's daughter's qualifications.

Conference organisers defended Trump's participation, saying she leads White House efforts on job creation and economic growth through workforce development, skills training and entrepreneurship.

CES is no stranger to controversy. In 2019, the event found itself heavily criticised after reports it had revoked an award granted to sextech company Lora DiCarlo.

In the years before that, the event found itself criticised for the use of “booth babes” on the show floor.

But it seems that despite the initial opposition, Trump found a more receptive audience than expected. She was there to tout government-industry collaboration to create jobs, drawing applause at a tech show that contrasted with the criticism she faced beforehand for her lack of tech experience.

She said a White House council that she co-leads will launch a nationwide year-long advertising campaign to encourage all pathways to jobs, including apprenticeships, and not just a college degree. “We need to raise awareness about many options that exist,” she told the audience. Trump said the White House will release a national workforce strategy in the coming months. She said over 400 companies have committed to offering over 14 million training opportunities.

Consumer Technology Association chief executive Gary Shapiro, who moderated the discussion with Trump, praised her remarks. "On behalf of the industry, we want to work with you. We want to create jobs," Shapiro said. Trump talked about efforts to boost paid family leave, finding people to fill 500,000 manufacturing job openings and doing more to recruit and retain immigrants that she dubbed "the greatest talent in the world".

Some in the Women Who Tech group on Facebook voiced displeasure with the invitation to Trump. Investor Elisabeth Fullerton wrote: "This is an insult to women in technology. We did hard times in university, engineering, math, and applied sciences. This is what extreme privilege and entitlement get you. It's not what you know it's who you know I guess."

Tech analyst Carolina Milanesi wrote in an opinion piece in Forbes: "The reason for my upset is rooted in the fact that there are many more women who are in tech and are entrepreneurs who could run circles around Trump on how technology will impact the future of work." – Bloomberg