The future of the car will again be caught in the headlights of the annual CES consumer electronics show next week, but expectations for self-driving vehicles will be dipped rather than main beam.
General Motors chief Mary Barra is expected to emphasise an all-electric rather than autonomous decade ahead, in her keynote speech at a CES 2021 that will be a virtual rather than Vegas event.
Tesla has led the way and its shares rose to a record high on the first trading session of 2021 today, off the back of it beating Wall Street targets for 2020 deliveries, while falling shy of Elon Musk’s 500,000 goal by just 450 units.
It hopes to boost sales this year with the more powerful, longer-range Model S Plaid, but its self-driving advances have been slower, with Mr Musk’s prediction that 1m of its vehicles would be operating as fully autonomous “robo-taxis” by the end of 2020 proved wrong.
There will be lots more electric choices for consumers this year — Wired today lists 24 models coming in 2021. But none of them will feature the Driver software developed by Waymo, which had aimed to have 100,000 self-driving cars on the road by 2020, but has achieved only 600.
John Krafcik, Waymo chief executive, tells the FT’s Patrick McGee that its 11-year effort has been “an extraordinary grind . . . I would say it’s a bigger challenge than launching a rocket and putting it in orbit around the Earth . . . because it has to be done safely over and over and over again.”
The former chief executive of Hyundai America admits he was thinking like a car industry veteran when he saw a 2015 prototype progressing to a broadly available service by 2020.
“This was a position of — I wouldn’t say ignorance — but a lack of information and a lack of experience . . . We’ve become very humble over these last five years.”
So has the rest of the industry, with attention switching from robo-taxis and navigating back roads to focus on the easier task of marshalling trucks and cars on major routes, as we turn off the highway of self-driving hype.
The Internet of (Five) Things
1. Alphabet Workers Union spells out aims
More than 200 Google engineers and other workers have formed a union in another sign of growing Silicon Valley activism. Its organisers said in the New York Times that they would live by Google’s old motto of “Don’t Be Evil”.
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2. Pinduoduo probed over worker’s death
China’s fastest-growing ecommerce group Pinduoduo is facing a growing public relations crisis and an investigation into its working conditions after one of its employees died after collapsing on her way home from work last week. Some Chinese tech companies expect a “996” commitment from employees — meaning they start work at 9am, leave at 9pm and work six days a week.
3. Discovery hopes for podium finish on streaming
Discovery Plus launched in the US and several European countries today, with the latest streaming service hoping rights to the Tokyo Olympics will win it subscribers. Meanwhile, Amazon and Netflix are looking to Tollywood, Mollywood and Kollywood to grow their audiences in India and the period drama Bridgerton is playing well in the West. In audio streaming, the UK music industry has pointed to rising investment in new artists as evidence that more musicians are benefiting from the streaming boom.
4. Bitcoin’s record-breaking rally
The cryptocurrency climbed above $34,000 for the first time on Sunday, extending a record-breaking rally that delivered a more than 300 per cent gain last year. It fell today, but the rally has fed concerns that bitcoin is set to repeat the events of three years ago, when a bull market dramatically collapsed. In equities, this Robert Armstrong video looks at whether the 2020 bull market — mostly driven by tech stocks — is coming to an end.
5. NYSE begins delisting China telcos
The New York Stock Exchange has begun delisting China’s three largest state-run telecom groups to comply with a Trump administration executive order barring US investors from holding stakes in suspected Chinese military-linked companies. Lex reports the unexpectedly rapid delisting has knocked Chinese telco share prices.
Tech tools — Bendables and rollables rollout
LG Display says it will showcase the world’s first 48in Bendable Cinematic Sound OLED display, optimised for gaming, at CES 2021. The paper-thin screen bends and unfolds so it can be turned into a flat screen while watching TV and used as a curved screen for more immersive gaming. LG’s CSO tech also enables OLED displays to vibrate and make their own sound without the need for speakers. Meanwhile, Lex says foldable phones are so last year. Soon you will be able to roll your handset up.