If you’ve always wanted a voice-activated kitchen sink, or a ball-shaped robot pal named Ballie or a kitty-litter box that uses artificial intelligence to analyze your cat’s poop, just take a look at the annual CES, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas to see them, among many other weird, wonderful and useless gadgets.
Imagine this crowded, sprawling trade show as an amusement park for geeks, except there aren’t any rides. (Actually, that’s not quite true. Google built its own roller coaster last year.) There are the usual tech suspects, of course: new TVs, smartphones, portable speakers, cameras, drones and appliances. Increasingly, you’ll also find new cars.
In 2020, for the first time, the first big car show of the year is not being held in Motor City, but rather in Sin City, at CES. As the importance of the Detroit motor show declines – arguably in parallel with the importance of other traditional auto shows – CES has become the place where automakers go to make headlines and show how they’re ahead of the curve. (The Detroit show has been pushed back to June.)
By my count there, were more than 600 exhibitors related to automotive technology at the show this year and more than 200 exhibitors in the field of self-driving cars. Upstart electric-car companies shared convention space with LIDAR (laser radar) suppliers and major automakers, including Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Audi, BMW, Honda, Toyota, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz.
It’s another sign that automobiles – these candy-coloured tangerine-flake dream machines that once represented freedom, rebellion, excitement and speed – are becoming more like any other internet-connected gadget.
“We were one of the first OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] that actually came here [to CES], and it felt like we were wedding crashers,” said Ola Kallenius, chairman of the board of management at Mercedes-Benz. “Some people were like, ‘What are you guys doing here?’ ” That was in 2007 or 2009, he said. “At that time, tech and auto, it was almost like it was two different universes."
Since the first consumer technology show in 1967, CES has borne witness to the evolution of thousands of gadgets, many of them long forgotten. CES has witnessed the rise of the personal computer, CD-ROMs, cellphones, online video-game systems, internet-connected TVs and appliances, 3-D printers and wearable fitness-trackers.
The crowds at the 2020 show were thick and ruffled, pressing the flesh, networking, buying and selling. In several booths, there were people in suits trying out virtual-reality goggles. They looked like toddlers, gazing off into space.
Elsewhere at the show was a far-fetched electric helicopter concept created by Hyundai and Uber; ride-sharing for the 1 per cent. Segway showed off an egg-shaped robotic chair that could drive around inside malls. Another company released the Hydrofoiler XE-1, the “world’s first hydrofoil bike that replicates the cycling experience on water.” It costs US$7,490.
How many failed ideas have lined these halls, hoping for a big break that never came? Surely there have been thousands. In and among this hodgepodge of gizmos is where, apparently, cars now fit into the culture.
Technology and cars aren’t two separate fields any more, Kallenius said. “Even the tech companies, in the last few years, they use cars to demonstrate their latest and greatest technologies.”
Indeed, Sony shocked everyone by rolling out a concept car of its own this year.
Inside BMW’s Interaction EASE concept car, the entire windshield is an augmented-reality screen, showing helpful driving information as well as movies. Lamborghini’s latest sports car, the Huracan Evo, has Amazon’s Alexa assistant built-in. The Mercedes Vision AVTR concept takes the digital assistant to the next level, attempting to make the whole car feel like a living, organic thing.
“The car is becoming sort of a connected mobile supercomputer,” said Charles Eagan, chief technology officer for BlackBerry. “This north hall of CES has been an automotive playground for many years, but with the advent of higher-speed communications and higher-speed CPUs in cars, there’s a lot more functionality happening.”
That new functionality – big touch screens and better voice control – is becoming a key differentiator in an otherwise increasingly homogenous car market. For automakers, it’s less important to talk about cylinders and horsepower in Motor City and more important to show up at CES to talk about in-car connectivity, subscription services and smart-safety features that promise to make driving less stressful.
Subscriptions to new services – such as in-car WiFi plans, live concierge assistance and remote engine-starting from a smartphone app – are a small but growing revenue stream for Mercedes, Kallenius said.
For people who enjoyed the heyday of the personal automobile in the 1950s and sixties, the thought that its status has been downgraded to that of a high-tech appliance will be tragic. But that’s not quite what’s happening here.
As they exist today, cars can never be just another consumer electronic device. Cars are unlike everything else at CES. For one thing, lives are at stake when we use them. For another, you sit inside cars, making them an immersive experience in a way that phones and TVs never can be. And cars are expensive. A mid-level Honda sedan still costs 15 times as much as the most expensive new iPhone. Cars are not as disposable as trendy gadgets that come and go with the seasons.
As cars evolve, the way automakers show them off is evolving too. But even at CES, car companies may struggle to garner widespread attention. After all, what’s more exciting: Some far-off concept car, or a cute robotic pillow that acts like a cuddly cat? Sadly, it might be the cat pillow.
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