EV concept cars at CES 2020 – empty promises?

CES wrapped up a week or so ago, but there were a couple of EV concepts shown off that got stuck in my mind … and not for a good reason. Sony caught everyone off guard with a car that they designed to show off their tech, and Mercedes partnered with James Cameron on an Avatar concept car. Yeah … Avatar. Remember that movie that nobody really seems to care about anymore? That got me thinking about concept cars in general and why Tesla doesn’t do them.

We see the same thing every year at CES; crazy concepts for everything from consumer electronics to cars. This year wasn’t any different. Charmin made a toilet paper robot1 that will deliver you a roll of toilet paper if you run out. Never going to be a real product, but it was there. And that’s why a couple of this year’s car concepts really stuck out to me. They were only designed to make a splash, get some reporting, but we’ll either never see anything about these again, or it will be years before a ghost of the concept appears in something else.

CES concept craziness

Sony worked with car manufacturer, Magna, on the very credible looking concept car they revealed: the Vision-S. Most concept cars are held together with duct tape and a prayer, but this was an actual working prototype. If you don’t know Magna, they’re a company that develops and assembles cars for other companies, so they don’t have cars on the road under their own badge.2 You’ve seen their work with things like the BMW X3 and Jaguar iPace.

The Vision-S specs are a 4.5 second 0-60 time, two 200kW motors, and a top speed of 149 miles per hour … but none of that matters because this car is never going to be sold as we saw it at CES. It’s not going to be sold at all. Sony built this car out to show off their technologies that can be integrated into an electric car. One of the things they were showing off is right up my alley, the user interface and entertainment experience. Sony obviously has a long track record with creating laptops, phones, and software to run those devices, so this was them showing off what they could bring to the table. They also showed off rear view cameras powered by Sony systems instead of rear view mirrors, as well as components that could be used for full self-driving.3 In the end, this wasn’t a car meant for us, the consumer. This was a prototype to catch the attention of auto manufacturers around the world to show that Sony is serious and should be considered as a partner in developing car technologies. And on that count, I think Sony nailed how to do a concept car.

But taking a step more towards the “concept” in concept car is BMW. They showed off their i Interaction Ease concept. It wasn’t a car itself, but a mockup of what a car’s cabin may be like after self-driving cars hit the mainstream. They included some really bizarre design details like seats fuzzed together like a love seat … which may be implying …. something. And hand gestures to control computer interactions, along with your gaze. BMW said that some of these interactions may end up being seen in the iNext SUV in 2021.4 And that’s kind of the key here. Most of this is head in the clouds, blue sky, design exploration. Not a real product.

And finally the craziest concept car from this CES: the Mercedes Vision AVTR … or Avatar. This is obviously not going to see the light of day, but was Mercedes trying to convey it’s vision for electric vehicles and being more environmentally conscious. All of the materials in the car are sustainable, like the vegan leather and recycled plastics. The back has 30 little panels that pop up and adjust depending on what the car is doing … and the mood of the driver. The actual purpose of those panels is mostly eye candy, but the point of those and the light animations on the tires, as well as the breathing central console control, is to show how committed Mercedes is towards the environment and sustainability. Yeah. Sure.

Meanwhile in the real world, Mercedes has delayed it’s release of the EQC in the US by at least a year.5 And a big part of that reason is something I covered in my “is Tesla holding back EV competition” video. Other car makers are having a very tough time selling EVs, so at the moment it looks like there isn’t an EV market … just a Tesla market. Mercedes is holding it’s EQC back in the US to focus on Europe and to buy some time to see how things change.6 Jaguar and Audi have really struggled and Mercedes doesn’t want to end up in a similar situation … but hey … Avatar.

Why do concepts at all?

So that brings me to the big question that has been stuck in my head since CES. Why do companies do public concepts like this at all? It creates false expectations. And it can also tip your hand too early for competitors to grab onto those same ideas and run with them faster. There are two great articles from Dieter Bonn at The Verge and John Gruber on Daring Fireball, that capture my take on the situation.

Dieter’s article, “Concept cars and concept foldable betray a lack of confidence,” really hits the nail on the head for me. In the laptop and phone space, everyone has a strong sense that foldable devices are going to be huge, but it’s still very early days. Rushing to be first to market is pushing the capabilities of the tech we’re capable of today, and it’s hugely expensive. Samsung rushed the Galaxy Fold out the door and paid the price with having to cancel the launch.7 They ended up completely retooling the hinge design to make it more durable. Even after months of rework8 it’s still not viewed as ready for prime time.9

EVs are somewhat in a similar position. As I already brought up, the failure for EVs like the Jaguar iPace and Audi e-tron to catch on and sell well is having a chilling effect for other manufacturers like Mercedes. Many companies were showing off concepts with no ship dates at CES because there’s uncertainty and a lack of confidence. Nobody wants to be the next Samsung or Jaguar when releasing a brand new, and expensive, product to market. They’ll let someone else take the leap, but show the world that they’re at least working on it.

John Gruber had a much harsher take: that it’s not a lack of confidence, but a lack of talent. To quote from his article:

“Concept designs (and worse, concept videos) are a sign of dysfunction and incompetence at a company. It’s playing make-believe while fooling yourself and your audience into thinking you’re doing something real.” -John Gruber

I don’t think it’s necessarily a sign of dysfunction, but I do agree that it’s playing make-believe. I’m a believer is setting a goal post that’s way out there to motivate and drive your company’s direction and designs internally. Setting your company’s North Star will guide everything you do in the short- to mid-term. And as a designer myself, I know how off the rails things can get if you let designers play in their sandbox alone. To continue from John’s article:

“Concepts allow designers to ignore real-world constraints: engineering, pricing, manufacturing, legal regulations, sometimes even physics. But dealing with real-world constraints is the hard work of true design. Concepts don’t stem from a lack of confidence. They stem from a dereliction of the actual duties of design.” -John Gruber

On this I agree completely with him. I’ve worked with immensely talented designers throughout my career, but the worst ones lived in a perpetual state of “head in the clouds.” The best designers are able to think outside the box, come up with innovative solutions, but also know when and how to bring things back to reality; to work closely with engineers and others to not just deliver something that looks great and seems fun to use, but also is able to be built in the first place.

Tesla and Apple

Which brings me to my final point in all of this. We rarely, if ever, see companies like Tesla and Apple play in the concepts sandbox publicly at events like CES. When they reveal a product to the world, it’s either ready to ship or will ship looking and working very close to what they showed.

Tesla showed off the first prototype of the Model S to the public in 200910, but didn’t produce the first cars until 2012. The production versions of the Model S were very close to what they revealed several years earlier. The same is true for the Model X, Model 3, and the soon to be released Model Y.11 Yes, there are differences between the original reveal and production versions, but they’re all pretty minor. Tesla only reveals a concept when it’s feasible to produce and they’re confident in their core design decisions, which is why we can be confident that the Cybertruck will look very close to what they revealed at the end of last year.

Apple operates in much the same way, and yes, it’s related directly to cars. From a Time magazine profile of Apple in 2005, there’s a great quote from Steve Jobs:

“You know how you see a show car, and it’s really cool, and then four years later you see the production car, and it sucks? And you go, What happened? They had it! They had it in the palm of their hands! They grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory!” -Steve Jobs12

Companies like Tesla and Apple absolutely do concept tests, but they do it behind closed doors. They hash out the design until they’re ready and confident in their vision for the product and only then reveal it to the world. It avoids setting false expectations with potential customers, and even more importantly, it avoids tipping your hand towards competitors too soon. It’s not to say that Tesla is perfect at the timings of their reveals, but in general they’re delivering on what they show off and promise to the public. I get why seeing a company’s vision of the future may be exciting, because it’s a hint of what might be coming 3, 4, or 5 years down the road. And in the case of Sony, it’s exciting to see them flex their design and technology muscle to send a message to other automakers. But when it comes to the real concepty of concept cars and products … maybe I’m just getting cynical in my old age … but the more I see of these CES concepts, the less impressed I become. It’s empty promises … again and again. I’d much rather see a company spend the time, energy, and money on something that’s really going to come to market and deliver on the promise.

1: http://www.cnn.com/2020/01/08/business/charmin-toilet-paper-robot/index.html

2: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magna_Steyr

3: http://www.theverge.com/2020/1/8/21056404/sony-vision-s-electric-concept-prototype-first-look-ces-2020

4: http://www.cnet.com/roadshow/news/bmw-ces-concept-autonomous-cars-luxury/

5: http://www.motor1.com/news/387978/mercedes-eqc-debut-delay-us/

6: http://www.latimes.com/business/story/2019-12-13/mercedes-delays-electric

7: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeanbaptiste/2019/09/06/samsung-cancels-all-galaxy-fold-pre-orders-in-the-u-s-offers-a-250-store-credit-as-compensation/#55ea09d1b4af

8: http://www.cnet.com/news/galaxy-fold-samsung-will-relaunch-its-foldable-phone-in-september/

9: http://www.digitaltrends.com/cell-phone-reviews/samsung-galaxy-fold-review/

10: http://www.inverse.com/article/48131-tesla-model-s-is-10-a-look-back-at-its-legacy

11: http://electrek.co/2017/07/10/tesla-model-3-comparison-pre-alpha-prototype-new-production-unit/

12: http://web.archive.org/web/20090328205537/http://time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1118384,00.html

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