SAN FRANCISCO — Henry Ford would have never considered the automobile a consumer electronic device, but more than a century later, the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show sure does.
In the past few years, autos have gone from kinetic transportation to rolling computers as car and tech companies alike step up their quest to automate the driving experience to make it safer, more sellable and just plain cooler.
“You could say we’re getting close to rivaling an auto show now,” CES spokesperson Laura Hubbard says.
In fact, the Detroit Auto Show, held just after CES, is getting its run for the money as the de facto kickoff to the automotive season. This year’s CES extravaganza, which will take place in Las Vegas Jan. 6-9, dedicates 25% more floor space to its 115 auto-related exhibitors, which include nine top-tier manufacturers such as Ford, Audi, Toyota and BMW. Hubbard notes that autos are experiencing the same CES floor-space growth as buzzy drone, virtual reality and robotics tech.
The most hotly anticipated CES automotive moment will take place before the show truly gets underway. On the evening of Jan. 4, a mysterious new entrant into the electric car space named Faraday Future is likely to unveil a prototype vehicle.
Not much is known about Faraday beyond that it is backed by Chinese billionaire Jia Yeuting, CEO of Web video service Leshi TV, and has amassed about 400 employees. The company recently brokered a billion-dollar tax incentive-laden deal with Nevada legislators that will see Faraday’s first manufacturing plant pop up in the desert just north of Las Vegas.
“We plan to revolutionize the automobile industry by creating an integrated, intelligent mobility system that protects the Earth and improves the living environment of mankind,” Yueting wrote in a proposal letter to state politicians.
Faraday says it plans to begin producing cars by 2017. Some industry watchers have mused whether the company is a front for Apple, which is rumored to be getting into the auto business. Nevada’s Faraday factory score is yet another coup for the state, which had secured a commitment from Tesla to build its Gigafactory battery plant just outside Sparks.
Faraday posted a teaser video the week before CES, but only showed a shadow of a car.
Some of the other automotive highlights of the week promise to be two keynotes by auto world executives. GM CEO Mary Barra is likely to discuss her company’s forays into assisted- and autonomous-driving tech, and Herbert Diess, chairman of embattled Volkswagen, will unveil an all-electric concept car.
Kia plans to give details on its autonomous car program. Audi will show off an array of new safety-focused tech in its 2017 Q7 SUV. BMW, which showed off a vehicle that could valet park itself last year, will be on hand to discuss progress on leading-edge tech that includes cameras that track the driver’s eyes to anticipate what system he or she may aim to activate.
Notably absent from CES is Tesla, whose two software-driven sedans virtually define auto-tech, as well as Google, whose seven-year self-driving car program is arguably leading the autonomous car race. The company’s fleet of sensor-laden Lexus SUVs and small prototype cars has logged 1.3 million miles on the streets of Mountain View, Calif., and Austin.
Google Car execs have said they expect a consumer-ready version to be on the streets within five or six years. Google has indicated that it would probably spin off its automotive division into a separate entity under the search company’s new parent, Alphabet. In September, former Hyundai boss John Krafcik was appointed as the first CEO of Google’s self-driving car operation.
Google car execs expressed extreme disappointment recently about proposed regulations from the California Department of Motor Vehicles which would, if adopted next year, require that companies testing autonomous cars have drivers that could take control of the vehicle in case of an emergency. Though Google’s prototype cars do have temporary steering wheels and brakes, the goal is to eliminate them in production models.
Another measure of the boom in automotive tech is the number of large companies porting their expertise over to vehicles. These include Nvidia, a Silicon Valley graphics processing units manufacturer known for its working in the gaming industry. Nvidia will use CES to showcase its chip technology for everything from virtual cockpits to autonomous driving.
Also on hand will be executives from HERE, a Nokia-owned 3D mapping company being sold to a consortium of automakers that includes BMW, Audi and Daimler AG. HERE is working on highly detailed digital maps that are critical to guiding automobiles, especially when inclement weather or poor roadways hamper onboard sensors.
Tech companies in the automotive aftermarket space are critical to bridging the divide between cutting-edge vehicles — which carry high price tags and won’t be in mass circulation soon — and the millions of vehicles that can perhaps benefit from tech upgrades.
“You’ve got to remember that even if the autonomous car era is coming, the average age of a car on the road today is 11 years old,” Hubbard says. “There’s going to be a lot of room for companies to provide tech that can bring some of those older cars into the digital age.”
If you’re planning to attend CES, make time for a panel discussion on the future of transportation at 3:30 p.m. Jan 7 at the Las Vegas Convention Center North Hall N259. Moderated by USA TODAY reporter Marco della Cava, the guests include Jeff Owens, CTO of Delphi Automotive; Edwin Olson of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute; Cory Reed, vice president of intelligent solutions at John Deere; and Erik Coelingh, senior technical leader at Volvo.
Throughout the full week of CES — Jan 3-8 — stay with USA TODAY Tech and reporters Ed Baig, Jefferson Graham and Mike Snider for full reports and videos on the entire spectrum of CES gadgets and technology.
Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter @marcodellacava.
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