This week, the tech world will descend on Las Vegas for the gadget extravaganza known as CES. And in the last few years, a large portion of the automotive world has also made the trek to CES, a relatively new phenomenon.
As a 30-year veteran of CES (I tell people I started going in my teens), I’m often asked why CES has become such an important show for automakers and their suppliers. The simple answer is it’s all about the numbers.
CES 2017 drew over 180,000 attendees and more than 7,000 members of the media from around the world. Contrast this with the 40,000 people and 5,100 journalists who attended the press and industry days of the 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit a week later, and the largest auto show in the US. (General attendance at NAIAS 2017 by consumers was over 800,000.)
While large auto shows like those in Detroit, Frankfurt, and Geneva tend to draw an international crowd for the press and industry previews that precede consumer days, it’s common to see the same group of globe-trotting car journalists roaming the automaker stands, with locals sprinkled among them. While CES has its grizzled old-timers like yours truly, the show continues to attract newbies like moths to neon.
But beyond the sheer numbers, automakers and their suppliers are drawn to CES because its tech-savvy media audience will amplify their announcements and product reveals in ways other events, including auto shows, cannot. And they know consumers will be paying attention.
All About Moving the Metal
Auto shows are still all about moving the metal. While auto show media days are all about the glitz of new vehicle debuts and unveiling the latest concepts, the public days that follow are all about consumers coming in to kick the tires and comparison shop without the pressure of the showroom.
While it’s changed a bit, auto shows generally highlight vehicle features such as horsepower, cargo capacity, and fuel economy, and maybe mention new tech features in passing. But at CES, it’s all tech all the time and the media lap up the crazy concepts and latest car gadgets.
Being Vegas, there are also sideshows that are impossible for Detroit or even Frankfurt and Geneva to compete with. This will be the second year that CES features autonomous vehicle demonstrations not only in parking lots adjacent to the Las Vegas Convention Center, but also on city streets, thanks to Nevada being one of the first states to legalize self-driving cars on public roads.
In fact, Aptiv (the automotive supplier formerly known as Delphi) is partnering with Lyft to offer rides to CES attendees in self-driving cars. Try that in Detroit in January or even on Frankfurt’s narrow urban streets.
Given my long history with CES, I also get the question of what auto tech was hot 30 years ago, and the short answer is CD changers. If I even saw someone from a car company at CES, it was usually groups of engineers scoping out the latest car stereos.
Of course, that’s radically changed in three decades, but the real shift in focus on automotive tech at CES has only occurred in the last 10 years. The introduction of Ford Sync at CES 2007 was a watershed moment, and that was simply a pre-iPhone way to integrate a mobile device into a vehicle for hands-free calling and music.
If you want to see the coolest new vehicles and concept cars, auto shows still rule. But there’s no better place to see the future of car tech and transportation than at CES. Stay tuned for all the news from Vegas.