Clean Energy Takes Center Stage at CES 2016

A host of major automotive and home appliance companies made heavy plays for the electric vehicle and smart home markets at CES 2016 in Las Vegas, NV. It is the giant convention where much of the life-changing consumer tech that we use today was unveiled, including the compact disc, the HDTV, the tablet computer, and the 3-D printer. At this year’s conference, held January 5–9 last week, clean energy and energy-smart technology were two of the major trends in new products.

Several trends in consumer goods attracted attention:

  • Major automakers debuted a flood of new, mass-produced electric vehicles and hinted (sometimes strongly) at mobility-as-a-service offerings forthcoming.
  • Home electronics like refrigerators, washing machines, fans, and more are enabling demand monitoring and demand shifting.
  • Connected, connected, connected. Much of the new energy-smart home technology comes connected to portable systems like phones and even some of the new EVs themselves!
Electric vehicles everywhere

General Motors unveiled its much-anticipated all-electric 2016 Chevy Bolt, to be widely available in 2016. With an estimated range of 200 miles on a single charge and a price tag of about $30,000 (after a $7,500 federal tax credit), Wired and others have been calling it “an EV for everyone.”

Volkswagen unveiled an EV sequel to its iconic microbus, though it won’t be available until 2019. Dubbed the Budd-e, it’s planned for mass production, will be one of a line of mass-production EVs from Volkswagen, and will reportedly charge as quickly as a Tesla Model S and boast of a range of 233 miles, to boot. Perhaps most intriguing, the Budd-e is being designed to be fully integrated with Smart Home technology, so that a driver can control HVAC and security systems from the road, among other things.

And the Faraday Future EV debuted as a concept car. It won’t be in mass production until 2017 at the earliest (the young company is building a factory in Nevada) but it has a lot going for it, including a major partner in LeTV, the “Netflix of China.” Plus, Faraday Future is aiming to have a car that is built from the ground up to be connected with home technology, phones, and computers.

Meanwhile, though Tesla Motors was comparatively quiet at CES, the company plans to unveil its Model 3 in late March, two short months away.

The rash of production EVs from auto majors is especially striking because oil prices are at a 12-year low. EVs have clearly evolved to become part of a long-term strategy by automakers to move beyond oil. All the EVs detailed here are based on underlying EV platforms (battery and chassis configuration) that can be reused as the basis for several different production models.

And there are signs of other major shifts in mobility. General Motors announced a $500-million investment in the ride-sharing company Lyft on the day before CES 2016 began. The agreement is to include developing an on-demand, self-driving car fleet. For its part, Ford announced its Smart Mobility Plan, which includes connectivity, autonomous vehicles, and mobility as a service—when combined with vehicle electrification, all elements of RMI’s vision for a personal mobility transformation.

Home is Where the Smart Is

CES 2016 saw a general movement into smart home technology by giant consumer companies, and more specifically toward home appliances and systems that are connected to and controllable from a smartphone or tablet; many are designed to maximize energy efficiency and even provide demand flexibility. One important caveat is that groups of companies are championing competing platforms for control and connectivity, creating a complex of potentially non-interoperable ecosystems.

One such ecosystem is a collaboration, announced at CES 2016, between British mobile-phone giant O2, device maker Tado, and AT&T, using the latter’s smart-home control system, Digital Life. Digital Life offers home-appliance energy management and mobile control of home heating and security systems. This year, O2 will begin installing such appliances and connectivity in homes throughout the UK among its 25-million-strong customer base.

Samsung has its own smart home ecosystem, called SmartThings, and is rapidly integrating its product lines into the app-based control system. A big hit at this year’s CES was Samsung’s Family Hub Refrigerator, boasting three internal cameras and a front display so you don’t have to open the doors to see what’s inside, a great energy-saver. What’s more, you can access the camera’s feed from your phone while you’re at the store.

Samsung would like to integrate the Family Hub Refrigerator into yet another ecosystem, Amazon’s Alexa. Alexa is a voice-controlled smart home control system introduced in June 2015. Amazon is working to integrate it into third-party products and at CES the results were on display in a dizzying array of home ventilation, home security, and other technologies. Alexa is even capable of controlling devices controlled by another smart home ecosystem, Google’s Nest, which includes smart thermostats, home security, and a whole host of other systems.

Another Nest-compatible device was unveiled at CES 2016, the Whirlpool Smart French Door Refrigerator. Notably, it is the first non-laundry appliance that is integrated with Nest’s demand-response program, Rush Hour Rewards. This feature is expected to become more common in the near future as the true value of flexiwatts is monetized and demand response and demand flexibility become available to more Americans. They are currently only available to about 65 million customers.

And there’s the Ecoisme device, which won a prestigious CES Innovation Award this year. The Ecoisme uses non-intrusive load monitoring to examine your total electrical load as it changes throughout the day and identifies the signatures of various appliances within a home’s electricity “heartbeat.” Once those signatures are identified, all sorts of energy opportunities becomes possible.

More connected than ever

All these advances announced at CES 2016 constitute some form of movement towards a smarter, more energy-efficient world. But what is most exciting is that they are starting to converge. Electric vehicles, smart thermostats, and demand-responsive home appliances are rapidly being linked together in what will be more than the sum of its parts.

For example, aforementioned automaker Ford unveiled a new, high-performance EV at CES 2016 and announced plans to field 13 EVs in the next five years. But more intriguingly, Ford also announced that its cars would now be linked with Amazon’s Alexa smart home system. This way, all the home elements that Alexa controls can be controlled from, and by, the car, and the status of a Ford car, including its charge state, can be accessed from the home. Toyota has decided to adapt Ford’s Alexa-compatible technology.

This sort of thing is only going to become more common as Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto get fully integrated into the market. Indeed, the trends at CES 2016 foretell an ongoing and accelerating transformation of home and auto technology toward an ever more energy-efficient, smart, and connected direction.