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CES

‘You’re no longer in the auto business’: CES go-to show for auto industry

Updated January 9, 2023 - 3:16 pm

Is CES becoming the new auto show?

Fifteen years ago, the annual tech show welcomed one automaker, who was actually attending as a partner with a major tech firm. This year, the Las Vegas Convention Center’s West Hall is filled with more than 300 automotive-related exhibitors, making it the largest turnout yet for the four-day show that ends Sunday.

“The car and auto presence (in the past) was really showcasing aftermarket auto accessories and speakers and things of that nature,” said John Kelley, acting show director and vice president of the Consumer Technology Association. “Whereas now, we have the entire auto ecosystem here.”

And CES has become the go-to show for major brands to unveil the latest tech and gadgets in the auto industry.

BMW AG Chairman Oliver Zipse touted how the luxury brand is creating a digital environment for its cars, during a Wednesday night keynote. The automaker introduced its latest prototype, a four-door sedan that can change into a plethora of colors and patterns and features a windshield that can act as a screen.

Stellantis, created in 2021 through the merger of Fiat Chrysler and PSA Peugeot, used its keynote on Thursday evening to unveil the concept version of the Ram 1500 Revolution, an electric pickup truck built on a new frame that incorporates the battery pack. Meanwhile, Sony and Honda offered the first public appearance of its prototype EV, Afeela, the result of a partnership that was announced in October, and Volkswagen gave a glimpse into its first fully electric sedan, the ID.7.

Automakers and its suppliers are revving up for a future filled with high-tech cars. Show producer CTA has said this year’s exhibitors in the auto industry will largely show off products and services around EVs, autonomous vehicles and the in-vehicle experience such as new screens, voice control features and services.

The increased presence of the auto industry at CES indicates the pace of innovation in auto-related technology, said Marcus Collins, associate professor at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Showcasing those features or products at a highly-visible trade show like CES signals to the public that cars can be viewed as consumer technology.

“They have to be,” Collins said. “Cars have always been at the intersection of new technology, but the technology has accelerated at such a degree that the lead time that it is to make new cars — you gotta be future-facing. Which means you’re no longer in the auto business, you’re in the tech business and people have expectations that the new tech that they’re buying is going to be adaptable to the cars they have.”

It’s much different than fifteen years ago. In 2008, there was one auto manufacturer at CES, who was there as a partnership with Microsoft, Kelley said. And other trade shows were often the site for automotive brands to make announcements — like when General Motors unveiled its concept for the plug-in electric Volt at the 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Nowadays, CES puts auto suppliers and car makers at the forefront, with many using it to unveil new releases and concepts. And it may continue because of a change to the Detroit Auto Show’s schedule. The annual event moved from late January — in competition with CES — to the summer in a bid to attract more attendees and feature outdoor event space.

The new schedule is one Volkswagen appreciates. The German car brand wanted to show off the new tech in its EVs and another new feature, a “digital camouflage” function that changes paint colors, said Mark Gillies, director of public relations and reputation for Volkswagen Group of America.

“We felt that CES fitted perfectly for the launch timing of the car,” Gillies said in an email. “And now that the Detroit Show has moved to the summer, it doesn’t have a rival at this time of the year for introducing new automotive tech.”

McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at mross@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mckenna_ross_ on Twitter.

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