by Julia Pyper
December 10, 2018

California hit a major milestone last month: 500,000 electric vehicle sales, which represents half of all EVs sold in America to date. 

So it's no surprise that EVs were a popular topic at the recent 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show. And these were just any old plug-in cars. Automakers showcased off-road electric trucks, fully autonomous "smart cars," and technology designed to turn EVs into money-making batteries on wheels. 

Here are three major tech innovation takeaways from the show. 

Go big (and electric) or go home

There’s no denying that sport utility vehicles are currently driving growth in the global auto market. And there’s no denying that this trend is bad for the global climate.

According to LMC Automotive, SUVs made up just 15 percent of light vehicle sales worldwide in 2013. This year, they will account for 35 percent of sales. In the U.S., SUVs had a 32 percent share in 2013. By 2020, they are projected to cross the 50 percent mark.

Automakers are making major strategic changes based on this outlook. Ford Motor Co. announced earlier this year that it is phasing out production and sales of sedans in North America, and General Motors revealed last month that it is ending production of six sedans in its North American line-up.

Some industry watchers say this strategy is designed to exploit a loophole in U.S. fuel economy regulations that makes bigger vehicles more profitable. And it may well be. But arguably the real environmental test whether or not automakers align their SUV-making strategy with their EV-making one.

Ford, for instance, is planning to launch a 300-mile electric SUV at the end of 2019, but GM has yet to tease production of a larger-scale electric vehicle. Other automakers, meanwhile, have been much quicker to embrace these trends.

Some of the biggest buzz at the L.A. Auto Show was around automotive startup Rivian, which introduced an all-electric “adventure” pickup truck, the R1T, and an all-electric SUV, the R1S. Both vehicles will offer more than 400 miles of range, off-road driving capability and autonomous highway driving.

The spacious vehicles also come with a host of other special features that are designed to make them appealing as aspirational purchases, and not just eco-friendly options. For instance, the truck comes with 110-volt outlets in the bed, a flashlight integrated into the driver door, and a middle truck (munk?) for additional storage.

“There are a bunch of interesting little Easter eggs throughout the vehicle, all focused on making it easier to take on life's adventures,” said Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe, in an interview.

When asked why he decided to skip the internal combustion engine and jump right to making large-scale electric vehicles (no easy task), Scaringe pointed to getting ahead of the competition with a product that is unique, and comes with no compromises on comfort or the environment.

“I'm someone who loves to be outdoors,” he said. “What always bothered me is…I'd be driving in something that makes the thing I am going to enjoy worse. Meaning it makes the environment worse. So we wanted something that you can simultaneously take your friends or your family and all of your gear and take it to the outdoors, meaning you can drive off on the trail. It can do all those types of activities.”

“We see in the market today that a lot of people are struggling with this as well, and may end up having two very different types of vehicles. You will see a customer with a Jeep, sitting next to, in the same parking lot, a BMW i3,” he said. “So we said, 'Let's allow them to not have that compromise.'”

Established automakers are also getting in on the electric SUV game. In September, Audi launched the all-electric Audi e-tron at the San Francisco Auto Show and was praised for loading up the luxury SUV with the latest technology, including the ability to charge its 96-kilowatt-hour battery at 150 kilowatts — charging up roughly 80 percent in 30 minutes. Audi claims the e-tron is the world’s first series-produced vehicle capable of charging at that level.

Fast-charging capability isn’t the only appeal. The e-tron, scheduled to hit the market in the second quarter of 2019, comes with a slew of other fancy amenities, such as massage seats. That’s reflected in the price, which starts at $74,800.

The e-Tron “is designed to strike at the heart of the premium SUV market,” said Audi of America President Mark Del Rosso in a presentation at the L.A. Auto Show.

Kia Motors chose the L.A. Auto Show as the place to introduce not one, but two new all-electric SUVs to the North American market. Both the electric Kia Soul and Kia Niro boast ranges above 200 miles.

Stephen Kosowski, manager of long-range strategy and planning at Kia, said at an L.A. Auto Show side event that these two larger vehicles are aimed at a “sweet spot in the market,” where customers can drive long distances on electricity with the comfort of a sport utility vehicle.

The autonomous vehicles are coming!

Self-driving and emissions-free vehicles of the future are becoming a little more tangible. For BMW, that concept becomes a reality in 2021, with the commercial launch of the BMW Vision iNEXT.

The iNEXT, which made its U.S. debut at the 2018 L.A. Auto Show, is both the platform for a production vehicle and a test bed for the next generation of BMW drivetrains, which will come with an electric range of up to 435 miles. It’s a “trailblazer for a variety of future technologies,” said Klaus Fröhlich, BMW’s head of development, at the L.A. launch event.

That mix of technologies is often labeled ACES: autonomous, connected, electric and services. The iNEXT will be equipped for all of the above, including full autonomy capability, according to BMW.

“Electro-mobility is already the new normal for us,” said Fröhlich. “So we needed a new challenge: to offer safe, autonomous driving by 2021.”

Level 3 autonomy will be available to all customers, he said. Access to Levels 4 and 5 will be dependent on regulatory and legal conditions around the world, he added, “but we will have the technology ready in 2021."

Autonomous vehicles are “absolutely coming,” said Brian Maragno, director of EV sales and marketing at Nissan, at an L.A. Auto Show side event.

Because automakers’ margins are thin, “we don’t get into things until it's really going to represent the future of the industry and an opportunity,” he said.

For Nissan, like many other automakers, electric-vehicle and autonomous-navigation technologies as intrinsically linked. Both technologies use a “drive-by-wire” configuration, as one Nissan exec previously put it. Those intelligent control systems ensure that autonomous EVs will operate safely.

Nissan is already rolling out lower-level autonomous drive capability on its vehicles, including the all-electric Leaf. In fact, the 2018 Nissan Leaf won the Consumer Electronics Show’s 2018 Best of Innovation award for vehicle intelligence and self-driving capability for its ProPILOT technology.

Autonomous EVs are a game-changer, said Ron Nichols, president of Southern California Edison. Not just for the automotive industry, but also for utilities.

“As we plan out our grid, as we work toward providing more infrastructure to serve electric vehicles, we want to make sure we don’t get too far out ahead because the charging requirements and patterns as we go to autonomous vehicles are going to change.”

Bidirectional charging comes to market

Because autonomous electric vehicles aren’t exciting enough on their own, some automakers are thinking about additional applications for EVs that go beyond the driving experience.

At Nissan, Maragno said the company is committed to bidirectional charging, and it is bringing that technology to market within the next 12 months.

Most other EV manufacturers are focused on smart charging that leverages on-board communications systems to start and stop charging at times that are beneficial for the electric grid. Bidirectional charging goes further, by actually pulling electrons off of the battery when needed.

“Every Leaf that we sell is bidirectional-capable,” Maragno said. “Last I checked, it’s the only EV in the marketplace in the world with bidirectional capability.”

But the vehicle isn’t enough, he noted. And so Nissan is also developing the equipment that’s capable of operating in the same way.

Earlier this year, Nissan launched a new home battery pack, called xStorage, that serves as an electric car wall connector and a bidirectional charging system. “Using Nissan bidirectional charging, customers can draw energy from the grid to power their car or van and then ‘sell’ back to the grid for others to use,” according to the press release.

Last month, the automaker announced it is expanding its bidirectional charging capabilities with the launch of the Nissan Energy Share pilot program, which leverages bidirectional EV charging technology to partially power commercial buildings.

Nissan is currently piloting that technology in a “vehicle-to-business” application, Maragno said. The pilot uses bidirectional chargers not only to charge the vehicle, but also to discharge from the vehicle battery, into the charger and into the building.

“The software is designed to sense when peak demand is going to hit for those buildings,” he said.

“If we can use the power from a Leaf or any EV, even in small increments, just to shave down the most expensive electricity that any one building has, that any one customer has, it could be massive savings,” Maragno continued. “We’re talking thousands of dollars a month, depending on how many chargers and vehicles you have.”

Testing has already begun at Nissan’s U.S. headquarters in Nashville and at a smaller design facility in San Diego. According to Maragno, the company is now of the “cusp” of bringing it to market.