With the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in the rearview mirror, it seems there is an endless stream of content recapping all the various trends, including what didn’t live up to the hype. Last week, I published the first edition of my three-part series looking at CES 2023 from several angles. Today’s edition focuses on three companies I spoke with at the event — Candela, Zoox and VinFast.
But in today’s TikTok-paced scrollable world, CES 2023 will soon be a distant memory. So, I am bringing you three recaps at once so you're not still reading my CES recaps well into March.
I had heard of each of these companies well before arriving at CES — all three had generated enough press that it would be hard to be unaware of them.
Candela is a Swedish all-electric boating company that manufactures various boats, from everyday cruisers to ferry-style shuttles. The company has become well known for its hydrofoil technology, which effectively lifts the boat above water — more on that later.
Zoox, a California startup and a subsidiary of Amazon, is developing autonomous shuttles designed for zero-driver input as the vehicle only has passenger seating.
Finally, VinFast, quickly becoming a household name in North America for reasons good and bad, is a Vietnamese automotive company manufacturing several all-electric crossover vehicles. While VinFast is a relatively new brand, its parent company, Vingroup, is one of the largest companies in the world and is the largest conglomerate in Vietnam, with several business lines underneath it, including real estate and healthcare.
Candela — 'The Tesla of the sea'?
I'm gonna flip the script on the classic phrase "saving the best for last" and dive into my favorite of the three companies first — Candela.
Candela is electrifying a specific part of the maritime and ocean vessel industry — passenger recreational boats and shuttles. The Environmental Protection Agency states that ships and boats account for 2 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Among those emissions, the maritime shipping industry is commonly viewed as the crux of our decarbonizing objectives. However, what about the segment of recreational boats, commercial ferries and shuttles?
If you have been on a gas-guzzling motor boat or a ferry, you will know that, while fun and a great way to travel, the presence of a loud and massive engine mixed with the fumes of burning fuel is part of the overall experience of being on the water. But it doesn’t have to be that way. One look at the fuel consumption of recreational activities shows that "pleasure boats," which include jet skis and all-terrain vehicles, account for 1.6 percent of the 143 billion gallons of fuel Americans use annually. And because of the way some recreational boating engines are designed — especially older boats that have two-cylinder engines (often associated with two-stroke engines) — they leak massive amounts of fuel directly into the water in addition to releasing harmful emissions into the atmosphere. Scientists estimate 20-25 percent of the fuel used in two-stroke engines fails to combust and goes directly into the water.
As for ferries, while new engine technologies are helping reduce emissions by upward of 80 percent in some cases (automatic PDF download), near ferry terminals, harmful pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide are often higher as ferries drop off and pick up passengers.
When I heard that Candela would be at CES, I knew I had to meet with them to learn more about what they’re doing. While only the Candela C-8 boat was on display, meant for recreational boating, many of the same technologies are also in their other products, including the P-12 Shuttle. Speaking of the P-12 Shuttle, while I won’t list all the cool and interesting features and design choices that make it stand out, three of the most noteworthy are its carbon fiber design, price and of course, its hydrofoil feature. One recent study also found that hydrofoil electric ferries emit 97.5 percent less carbon dioxide during their life cycle than diesel-powered ones, which is a huge win for the environment.
Using carbon fiber across much of the boat reduces its weight significantly. When paired with its unique hydrofoil design, which, upon reaching a certain speed, lifts the vessel into the air, Candela can improve efficiency by decreasing drag against the water and achieve a range of 60 nautical miles on a single charge and the title of the "world’s fastest" electric ferry.
In speaking with Mikael Mahlberg, head of PR and communications at Candela, he said the price for a P-12 is a little more than a million dollars. "I don’t think there’s any point in lowering the cost [of the P-12], as it is already on par with what the industry equivalent would cost," Mahlberg said.
When asked about how Candela achieved on-par costs, Mahlberg attributed it to the company’s goal of mass-producing these boats and the fairly small batteries inside (180 kWh), supplied through a partnership with Polestar. When coupled with a lightweight design, this creates a win-win-win situation. "The first ferries are going into the water this summer [in Stockholm], and there is the trial commissioning period, so realistically I think traffic [moving passengers routinely] is going to start next year," Mahlberg said. "But then we have deals going on here in the U.S. as well as other countries … so there are going to be quite a few ferries flying in different countries."
While Mahlberg and I spoke, standing next to the C-8, it almost felt natural to call Candela the Tesla of boats, and, during our conversation, I did. But I guess I wasn’t the only one thinking that, as they seemingly have an exciting future ahead of them.
Zoox — A bubbly face to take you on your way
As I mentioned in my first CES recap piece, it seems like autonomous vehicle (AV) tech took a back seat this year to electrification. However, there was still a huge AV presence that included Zoox, the Amazon-backed all-autonomous shuttle company.
In today’s world, it seems three major AV companies are gathering a lot of attention in addition to Tesla’s autopilot feature — Google’s Waymo, GM’s Cruise and Motional, which has partnered with Uber and Lyft. All these companies are operating all-autonomous and mostly all-electric rides with real passengers, now across the U.S. in parts of California, Arizona and even Las Vegas in Motional’s case.
In an attempt to test Motional while at CES, I kept requesting electric Uber rides, with the hopes of securing one of their all-electric AVs. However, all I got were a bunch of Teslas and some incredible conversations with drivers (something that I couldn’t have in an all-autonomous ride because there is no one to speak with).
Unlike those other companies, Zoox is in a different space and company stage. But it only seems right, in our tech-giant-ruled world, that Amazon felt left out of the party and backed Zoox in the AV space. Amazon is reportedly increasing its spending on Zoox in 2023, which is already at $1 billion annually.
In speaking with Paul Escobar, senior public policy and safety manager at Zoox, I got some insights into this fun and also very cool-looking ride that almost leaves you feeling like the vehicle has a bubbly face looking at you from the front. However, one piece of information, i.e., the range, was continuously left out of the conversation. "So it can go up to 16 hours operating in a dense urban environment on a single charge," Escobar said. "We probably have the biggest battery on the market to allow for a smooth, dense urban operation on one charge." However, with a 133 kWh battery size and public information showing the vehicle's weight at 5,400 pounds, I’ll leave it to those interested to speculate its potential range.
With AVs under constant scrutiny about safety and how fast the technology should scale, Escobar said they are taking an intentional approach to growth. "So we have designed the vehicle to operate within the existing federal regime and self-certified our vehicle, purpose-built to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards," Escobar said. However, when I asked Escobar about the recent news trending around Cruise vehicles causing some havoc on the roads in San Francisco with traffic jams and even an accident that prompted an investigation by the federal government, Escobar pointed to Zoox’s deliberate design approach. “I can’t speak on behalf of other companies, but we’re taking a very thoughtful approach to how we’re testing and scaling this technology,” Escobar said. "For instance, we’re still on private roads and close test tracks, but we have our test fleet — retrofitted Toyota Highlanders — in multiple cities [generating miles]."
While the AV topic is contentious and generates mixed opinions, I still think we are years away from seeing Zoox-style vehicles picking up passengers in cities across the U.S. Generating recorded miles for the vehicle to recognize roadways and driver habits is one big part of ensuring an AV is properly functioning. And of course, building a vehicle within the confines of existing regulatory standards is a huge leap ahead. However I think many uphill challenges still exist that go beyond those two areas. Competitors with millions of miles logged and recorded are still experiencing issues; furthermore, the general public might not be ready to take a ride in a motor vehicle with no driver or steering wheel inside.
VinFast — Spending money only goes so far
Have you ever been at a party and seen that one person who is either unquestionably the loudest person in the room or the one who, when asked a question, seems to be saying a whole lot of nothing and never actually answers the question? A classic "less talk and more walk" moment.
Well, it seems that image is clouding VinFast’s brand right now, and it may not be entirely off base. Before heading to CES, I had heard about VinFast and its all-electric lineup of EV crossovers coming to the U.S. I also saw them at the 2022 New York International Auto Show, and they looked, from afar, promising.
But then I kept seeing their name pop up more online — and for not-so-great reasons. To see what I mean, read this well-documented experience by Kevin Williams, who was flown out to a VinFast media event along with many other members of the media and influencer community to see what I mean. If that doesn’t float your boat, you can also check out this in-depth hands-on experience video by Out of Spec Reviews, where you see the vehicle put through some initial user tests while at CES.
The cloud that looms over the VinFast brand is one seemingly of lavish spending, loudness and attention-grabbing acts, but with little to show once you go deeper. That was best on display at CES where it genuinely felt like, at times, we were in VinFast’s world and not at CES. It had one of the largest booths, and endless branding across all of the Convention Center’s West Hall where the automotive world was housed — yes, almost the entire West Hall hallway was filled with only VinFast banners.
And if that wasn’t enough, the first day of CES concluded with VinFast bringing a live DJ to perform music, resulting in them actually being one of the loudest booths. The company was also giving test drives on a controlled test track just outside of the West Hall where rows of VinFast vehicles were parked. So yes, in some way, we were in VinFast’s world and I will admit, I do like the overall look of the various models.
But what is there to show when looking deeper? While this isn’t an extensive or detailed review by any means, one bit of not-so-great news is that the VF 8, one of its midsize SUVs, has an 82 kWh battery and only a 179 EPA-estimated mile range (below what was advertised by the company of 260 miles) with a starting price of $59,000. Of course, the company has other models with larger expected ranges and price tags. But for comparison, a VW ID.4 has a range of 245 miles for one model, an MSRP of roughly $41,000, and only an 82 kWh battery. A VinFast representative has claimed that the company is aware of this massive drop in range and will apparently improve it with an over-the-air update. I spoke with Gareth Dunsmore, deputy CEO of global sales and marketing for VinFast, who provided me with some of VinFast’s perspectives and the road ahead.
When asked what the company’s projected run rate is for North America in terms of its projected sales, Dunsmore said, "I think it’s really important to not set a clear target for that at the moment; we’re launching focusing on California, we have 10 stores in California and want to build that out, with the right service support."
When asked whom it sees as a competitor and where it sees itself fitting in the North American market, Dunsmore responded by saying, "Within each vehicle segment, we want to be at the premium end, but making sure we are showcasing the quality of our products and technology… and then we will let others compare us."
In the current moment for EVs, having many options to choose from and competition is a good thing. I genuinely hope that some critiques of VinFast from more extensive reviews are taken into consideration by the company and that its products are improved upon.