It was nearly two years ago that Sony showed up to the Consumer Electronics Show with a semi-autonomous EV called the Vision-S. The car’s mere existence confused everyone — Sony is not a carmaker, and from the get go, the tech giant proclaimed the Vision-S would not see production. But Sony does make a lot of things that go in cars, and so the Vision-S was intended — at the time, anyway — as a testbed for and showcase of all it does as a supplier.
The Vision-S has done those jobs. In the many months that have passed since the car’s debut, it’s been shipped back and forth between Europe and Japan for real-world testing and further tweaking, both at Magna-Steyr’s factory in Austria and Sony’s facilities in Tokyo. At least two Vision-S prototypes have been built and they’re still running on public roads. As for what comes after that, Sony’s top brass seem to have absolutely no idea.
Izumi Kawanishi, senior vice president of Sony’s AI and robotics department, shared as much with Automotive News over the weekend:
“We don’t have a concrete plan at this time because our current phase is a research and development phase,” he told Automotive News. “We have to investigate what is our purpose in contributing to mobility service. That is our basic idea, and we have to continue the R&D phase.”
This apparent lack of direction is simultaneously surprising and not. On one hand, Sony portrayed the Vision-S as a tool to further develop everything from sensors and computer vision to in-car audio and gaming. On the other hand, loads of tech companies also make these products, and you don’t see them going off and building entire cars for funsies.
To Kawanishi’s question, it seemed like the question of Sony’s “purpose in contributing to mobility service” was clear from the outset. Here’s how Mike Fasulo, president of Sony Electronics, justified the Vision-S to Time at CES in January 2020:
It’s built around our core technologies, or at least the parts that we are focused on, which are safety, security, and entertainment. The reason we designed the car was, from [Sony CEO Kenchiro Yoshida’s] view, to understand from scratch what the engineering feats are, so that we can provide what we do best when it comes to trends in automobiles, autonomous or otherwise.
That makes sense to me, plus it’s proved a slick marketing move at a time when Apple’s been working on a car for the better part of a decade and still has nothing to show for its efforts. Yet, after all this research and development, Sony’s still enduring a crisis about what its role in this era of electric, autonomous cars is.
It almost makes you wonder if the company’s entertained second thoughts about putting the Vision-S into production. Kawanishi reiterated to Automotive News that’s still not happening, lest anyone get their hopes up. Short of that, perhaps he’s foreshadowing a tie-up with a major automaker or several? The project could play out a number of ways, and we’ll merely have to wait and see which direction it takes. At the moment, it’s somewhat anticlimactic to watch a Sony exec reflect on two years of work with little more than a shrug.