Automotive for the people as cars take centre stage at CES

At this year's CES it was the automotive industry making the biggest noise as it finally caught up with the potential of cutting-edge consumer technology...

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The extent to which the uniquely Las Vegan hybrid of technology and glitz that is Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was dominated this year by the automotive industry was truly mind-boggling, though not exactly surprising. To those of us with an interest in the underlying direction of technology, it was the question the predominance of the car industry raised that was critical. 

The key conundrum is no longer when truly autonomous vehicles will arrive at our doorsteps – that timeframe seems quite clear. The real question is who will be the main stakeholders, the auto companies who build the machines or the tech suppliers who will deliver the new vehicle "experience"? The modern car is about so much more than four wheels and an engine, with the disruptive potential of technology being felt more keenly in the automotive industry than perhaps any other. 

Spirit of collaboration

It is noteworthy that the traditional barriers between car manufacturers have been replaced by a spirit of collaboration, where everyone talks to everyone. Mercedes, BMW and Audi jointly own the mapping service Here (bought from Nokia). Yet I also spotted the Mercedes team openly talking to the map maker TomTom at their booth. Manufacturers such as graphics processor giant Nvidia are another party close to the spoke wheel of this shift – it claims to be working with more than 80 car manufacturers. 

The Detroit Auto Show is about to start and yet it now feels archaic to many of the car industry experts I spoke to. The developments we talked about are no longer about engines or brake horsepower. How fast a car can complete the famous Nordschleife at the Nürburgring pales in comparison to how well it can use technology to understand its surroundings and how well it can communicate with the cloud. Interactive driver tech looked like a nice add-on when the car makers first appeared at CES. Today it's at the core of the manufacturers’ product – and collaboration will be essential if that technology is actually going to be able to deliver without becoming mired in complexity. 

Mercedes, for example, showed a delivery truck with a built-in robot pulling packages off its shelves and two drones mounted on top delivering them to their final destination. One can imagine the logistics going into such a concept. This is not something conceived in an afternoon and taken to the show – an entire ecosystem surrounding and supporting such a vehicle has to be in place and developed at the same time. 

Managing complexity

But the trick for manufacturers is to contain and manage those complexities – offering the user a smooth, intuitive experience. And the automotive wonders on offer were pointing to the future, the now was about offering that simplicity – with voice interface in the vanguard. 

Amazon’s Alexa was, of course, leading the charge – not least with its integration into a creepy, yoga-instructing robot. In terms of talking to robots, however, a Kickstarter product called Jibo could be the category killler. It’s perfectly well designed, and with its built-in cameras and sensors it can do a lot of things Home/Alexa can’t. It can recognise up to 16 friends or family members and approach them differently. You can use it as an assistant or be much more personal about it (kids can pet it). In a perfect world, Google would acquire the product and add its intelligence into the mix. 

Many of us don’t want our lives run by robots if it feels intrusive – but if it is convenient in the background we will sign up. I wrote last year that connected technology had yet to reach a critical mass – citing the smart home as evidence. Yes, we had Nest thermostats, Rachio sprinkler controllers, Roomba vacuums, Philips Hue lightbulbs etc, but no way of making them talk to each other – or us. This year, it felt as if that might be changing. 

Be it in our cars or our homes, we simply want to keep things simple… and at this year’s CES the makers of that technology showed signs of wanting to deliver just that.