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The PACCAR Innovation booth at CES. This year marked the first time truck manufacturers exhibited at CES. (Photo: PACCAR)

The year trucks invaded the consumer electronics space

Big rigs join the autonomous party at CES 2018.

Originally known as the Consumer Electronics Show since debuting in 1967, the annual extravaganza has since shortened its official name to CES.

Each year there are still more robots that want to be your friend, smarter kitchen appliances, and larger televisions. But the 2018 version of CES, which has evolved into the fifth-largest stand alone automobile show in the United States, featured something new — Class 8 trucks.

Peterbilt Motors and Kenworth Trucks became the first truck manufacturers to exhibit at CES, which included 4,000 companies, 170,000 attendees, and 7,000 members of the media.

Peterbilt brought a Level 4 autonomous truck, while Kenworth showed its hydrogen fuel cell truck. Both companies are units of PACCAR Inc.

Robots are often associated with CES. In 2018, they had to make room for large trucks. (Photo: CES)

During the rainy first day of the show, limiting foot traffic to the outside area where their booth was located, I asked company representatives why they brought commercial vehicles to what is generally still considered a consumer show.

Spokesman Nick Smith said Peterbilt wanted to show it was “at the forefoot of these technological advancements.” He noted that building a truck - especially an autonomous one - requires technology and parts from numerous companies exhibiting at CES including Intel, Mobileye, Nvidia, Samsung, Qualcomm, and others.

After the rain passed and the sunshine returned, a constant stream of visitors began made their way over to the "PACCAR Innovation" booth.

Many stopped simply to inquire “what was going on, because they hadn’t see a Class 8 truck at CES before,” Smith said.

A number of attendees said it was the first time they had ever been inside a truck. “We were able to give them a better view of what trucking is, and how it impacts them,” Smith said. “A lot of people did not understand how heavily involved in the development of this technology trucking is.”

The trucks at PACCAR’s booth were not the only big rigs at the show - TuSimple displayed a Peterbilt truck that featured its Level 4 autonomous technology, and Luminar Technologies brought a Kenworth to promote its LiDAR system.

Beyond these trucks, there was a stunning array of autonomous technologies on display. I hope no idea just how many companies were developing LiDAR, a critical component of autonomous driving. There were also numerous autonomous driving demonstrations, giving people the chance to experience driverless rides.

Quite possibly the most successful effort to spotlight autonomous driving may have been the most difficult to try out in person. Throughout CES, ride-hailing firm Lyft teamed with Aptiv to provide autonomous rides from CES to 20 locations. There was a human behind the wheel, and interested riders first were taken through a short exhibit explaining the technologies involved.

The companies said more than 400 rides were provided during the show, a figure that does not reflect actual demand or interest. I tried on two occasions to take a ride, but were warned of long wait times, due in large part to traffic. The eight available autonomous cars had to keep to the mapped routes, eliminating the option of shifting to a secondary route a human driver may have otherwise selected.

Lyft’s autonomous efforts received a big social media boost from celebrities such as actor Neil Patrick Harris (27.7 million Twitter followers) and Mark Cuban (7.5 million followers), who each shared photos of their rides.

Mark Cuban is all smiles as he gets into one of Lyft's autonomous cars at CES. He said it was his first driverless ride. (Photo: Lyft)

Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant and former NBA all-star Baron David were among others with large followings who took to social media to publicize their autonomous adventures with Lyft.

Since CES, Aptiv and Lyft said they plan on extending the project to another U.S. city. They noted the rides received a rating of 4.997 out of 5 stars from passengers, an indication that most people were pleased with the overall experience.

While that does not mean driverless vehicles are any closer to mass adoption, it is another signal they are getting harder to dismiss as just a gimmick or publicity stunt.

And what is trucking’s place in all of this? Smith said he could envision Peterbilt one day returning to CES, but it would have to align with development timelines. Trucking’s product and technology cycles can take a number of years to mature, a reason cited by numerous manufacturers in scaling back their appearances at the annual Mid-America Trucking Show in recent years.

In the meantime, Smith left CES feeling it was a successful mission for Peterbilt - and for trucking.

“We got to break down some barriers for the booth visitors not familiar with trucking,” Smith said. “It was a cool, unexpected outcome to break down a little bit of the mystery of heavy-duty trucks.” 

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