If, at first glance, you can’t tell the Afeela EV revealed by Sony Honda Mobility at CES 2024 apart from the prototype the start-up showed off last year, that’s no surprise. Nor after the second or third glance. You’ll have to check out what’s inside the concept vehicle. Visually, it’s unchanged, the partners revealed during a news conference at the Consumer Electronics Show on Monday night. But there are plenty of updates to be found under the skin, mostly with its built-in “experiences,” including new AI-powered games and autonomous driving technology.
Of all the big draws during the first day of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, few things drew more attention than the news conference hosted by Sony Honda Mobility. A year ago, the partners rolled out an all-electric prototype set to become the first entry into a new, high-tech brand called Afeela.
The sedan SHM brought back on stage at the Las Vegas Convention Center Monday night left folks in the audience struggling to figure out what was different. If they’d only gotten an advance look at the speech delivered by Sony President and COO Izumi Kawanishi, however, they’d have already known the answer.
“The concept remains unchanged from the prototype that was unveiled for the first time at CES 2023 but has evolved toward mass production,” Kawanishi announced.
It’s all about the technology
Actually, that shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
When he announced the formation of the Afeela brand at CES 2023, Kawanishi’s boss, Sony CEO Yasuhide Mizuno told a standing-room-only crowd that the partnership’s goal will be “transforming mobility into a moving entertainment space.”
He clearly left open the question of whether the then-new prototype was actually anything more than a steel, rubber and glass “save this space.” And, perhaps, for good reason. Would the two partners, notably Honda, want to launch a new brand with a sedan in a world dominated by SUVs?
During this year’s presentation, Kawanishi focused on two areas where the Afeela sedan has moved forward:
- It’s AI-powered autonomous driving and advanced driver assistance technologies; and
- It’s digital entertainment system.
In reality, those are the areas that Sony Honda Mobility focused on when Afeela was first unveiled.
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When it was first unveiled in January 2023, SHM broadly indicated the production sedan would use Level 3 technology permitting motorists to go hands-free on hundreds of thousands of miles of U.S. roadways.
That would be a big advance over current, semi-autonomous systems, such as General Motors’ Super Cruise and Ford’s Blue Cruise, never mind the Autopilot system from Tesla that was the target of a major safety recall last month. Currently, only Mercedes-Benz offers a Level 3 system – which means motorists no longer will have to sit at attention, eyes focused on the road, waiting to retake control immediately quickly in an emergency. With the Mercedes Drive Pilot, they can let eyes wander and relax, even play games, text or watch movies.
That’s clearly the sort of things that appeals to the Sony side of the partnership which can sell Afeela owners the movies it produces or charge them to play games.
Going a step beyond
But Sony left the clear impression this year that it’s ready to go a step beyond, possibly taking the production version of the Afeela vehicle – sedan or otherwise – up to Level 4. At that point, motorists wouldn’t have to worry about retaking control of the vehicle. It could even operate without a driver, at least when driving in “geofenced” areas that would be mapped in extensive detail.
To get there, Kawanishi indicated, SHM is making use of the latest in artificial intelligence – which will also take the production vehicle’s smart safety technology, such as forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, to the next level.
But whether Sony actually can reach Level 4 – or even Level 3, for that matter – by 2026, when it has promised to put Afeela into production, is far from certain.
Smartphone on wheels
AI is one of the big buzzwords at CES this year and, in the automotive space, suppliers and automakers alike promise to use it to help make their vehicles “smartphones on wheels,” a mantra repeated at one news conference after another.
As with today’s smartphones, however, SHM has admitted it can’t go it alone, despite the breadth of Sony’s high-tech skills and vast entertainment empire.
“Rather than rely solely on keeping the knowledge closed inhouse, SHM will provide an environment where creators and developers can freely develop applications and services that run on AFEELA, as well as a digital platform for co-creation and the expression of creativity,” said Kawanishi.
Among other things, look for the final Afeela EV to make use of new “experiences” developed in partnership with Epic Games.
The clock is ticking
Clearly, Sony and Honda have laid out ambitious goals. And they don’t have a lot of time to pull it together.
At last year’s CES they indicated the new Afeela brand will begin taking orders something late in 2025, with the first vehicle deliveries set for the following year. Whether they can hold to that schedule is so far uncertain.