Driverless-Car Companies Try to Revenue Their Engines on Commercial Prospects

A year ago Glen DeVos shuttled potential clients around the CES consumer electronics show in self-driving sport-utility vehicles to demonstrate his company's progress in handling complicated driving conditions.

This year, the chief technical officer of Aptiv PLC wants to demonstrate how the technology might actually be deployed in real life. Aptiv, the automotive-technology company formerly known as Delphi Automotive, is partnering with ride-hailing startup Lyft Inc. at this week's show to give free rides in self-driven cars between the convention center and most of the big hotels. The goal is to show how its technology could be deployed in a self-driving car service.

"This year is kind of pivoting away from technology demonstrations to really showing the applications," Mr. DeVos said.

The convergence of Silicon Valley and the Motor City has helped propel CES, held here every January, into an automotive industry event that rivals the North American International Auto Show, taking place next week in Detroit. Space dedicated to vehicle technology at CES has increased almost 25% this year and the number of those companies will rise 19% to 172 from a year ago, according to show organizers.

Carlos Ghosn, the head of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, and Jim Hackett, the new chief executive of Ford Motor Co., are scheduled to attend CES, as are the leaders of most top auto-parts makers, who plan to tout their latest advancements in car tech.

But for all of the excitement about self-driving technology, its path to business success isn't yet clear.

Regulators continue to struggle with how to handle it, and companies are still wrestling with the technology's limitations. Its use so far has been largely confined to testing with small numbers of research cars.

This year, several companies plan to go beyond that, deploying fleets of self-driving vehicles on cities' streets as engineers and programmers work to figure out how to scale the technology, collect data and see how real world users react. For instance, Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo self-driving car unit, which has a ride-hailing service in suburban Phoenix, has said it will put non-employees in its vehicles without humans behind the wheel.

And at CES, while recent years have featured companies demonstrating that self-driving technology could work at all, 2018 is about how to make what was once considered science fiction work as a mass business, executives say.

"It's got to the point now where showing a self-driving vehicle cruise down the street is not earth shattering and what people are looking to understand is how do you commercialize this," said Christopher Heiser, chief executive of Renovo Auto, which provides an software operating system for autonomous vehicles.

Last year, chipmaker Nvidia Corp., which provides processors used for autonomous vehicles, demonstrated an Audi circling a parking lot without a driver behind the wheel. This year it avoided planning such a demo, said Danny Shapiro, senior director of automotive.

"The majority of our booth are executive meeting rooms because every single executive team from every auto maker is at CES now," he said. "We're having true business discussions now--less so of let me show you what we can do."

Mr. Hackett on Tuesday is expected to add details to his vision for how Ford plans to deploy test autonomous vehicles. Recent comments by Ford executives have said the company plans to spend the year deploying vehicles to test various business uses, perhaps as delivery vehicles.

Aptiv plans to leave in Las Vegas the 10 test vehicles it brought for the show and expand the number to 30 by the month's end as part of a broader effort to expand its fleet to as many 200 including in Boston, Pittsburgh, Singapore and Silicon Valley.

In an almost two-mile trip to Caesars Palace on Sunday, an Aptiv- converted BMW 5 Series handled smoothly. A digital voice told the occupants when the car was thinking about changing lanes and a rear-seat screen plotted the route--the sorts of the tweaks Aptiv thinks will assure customers unfamiliar with riding in a car driven by a robot. While the vehicle still has a person at the wheel ready to take control if needed, Aptiv expects to begin operating without those human in the first quarter next year, Mr. DeVos said.

"The technology is really cool but you have to operationalize it," he added. "You can't just be driving, racking up miles, you have to be thinking how do I commercialize this."

Write to Tim Higgins at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 08, 2018 08:14 ET (13:14 GMT)