From hydrogen fuelled Audis and Volkswagen electric mini buses to the veiled hype surrounding a new car company called the Faraday Future, this year’s CES should in fact just be renamed the Consumer Car Show.
The first and only CES I attended in Las Vegas was in 2011. It was invaluable because it gave me a glimpse of the inner workings of the vast tech industry. The show really isn’t about showing off the next big thing – that is usually done by Samsung or Apple or Microsoft during the actual calendar year – it is about buying patterns for the following year.
Of course, the tech giants use it to set out their stalls, show some of their vision and influence trends, but rarely is something new actually revealed after the bloated affair that is Christmas, and CES is usually just about booking and buying early on for the year that is to come. If Christmas 2015 was a tech-dominated affair worldwide, its origins were sown at a negotiating table in Las Vegas 12 months previously.
While on the face of it there is the glitz, the giant screens and a fleeting Blade Runner-esque futuristic feel, there is a lot to be mocked: from the inexplicable and much derided industry penchant for continuing to use booth babes at stands, to flocks of green-faced, hungover executives from Idaho or wherever who may have blown their budget entertaining customers, or who may have lost it all the night before at the blackjack tables. What happens in Vegas usually stays in Vegas.
The real business, however, happens outside the conference halls in crowded lobbies and hotel rooms, and at the poolsides of nearby hotels where, away from the geeks and the glitz, companies negotiate vast orders for the year ahead. Global orders that are negotiated in January and which culminate in that shiny new TV or games console that arrive in living rooms in time for birthdays or Christmas are drummed up at CES. Yes, it happens at a strange time of year and nothing new is really revealed, but CES is strategically invaluable for what happens below the surface.
The demise of CES is often heralded but premature, with the majority of naysayers usually reporters full of fear and loathing for Las Vegas on their return, but who are also primed and itching to go back a year later. Its demise is often suggested when big name sponsors like Microsoft decide to pull out of doing their traditional keynote, but still the industry comes back for more. Every time.
But something different is happening this year – the automotive industry is using 2016’s CES to rev up anticipation for the future of transport.
It makes sense, because the car is the ultimate gadget – it is full of electronics, software, components, computers. It is your expression of identity, dignity and style (or not), and it gets you from A to B in comfort.
Electric vehicles are effectively giant laptop batteries with wheels, and there is much discussion as to whether Apple will make cars or not. Doubters believe Apple is more interested in integrating with the future of transport rather than making its own.
Before Apple enters the fray new car makers like Tesla are dominating the scene with futuristic vehicles that go super fast on a single charge. These cars boast capabilities like autonomous driving and beckon a future of clean driving without a reliance on fossil fuels.
At CES 2016, there is much mystery surrounding a new company called Faraday Future, which is planning to reveal what it believes is the future of transport, and has invested $1bn so far in a new factory in the US. The company has already hired 400 workers, stealing many of these from Tesla and BMW.
Very little is known about the Faraday Future reveal except that the company is compelled by a vision that cars should navigate themselves and, just like with Google’s Nest, learn about their owners in terms of musical tastes, environmental preferences, work schedules and more.
Not much is known about Faraday Futures or who its investors are, except that it has put its pedal to the metal in gearing up an attempt to drive Tesla off the road.
Having already revealed a super-souped-up Audi A4 with a virtual cockpit, Wi-Fi hotspot and a lot more last year, Audi is expected to reveal a new hydrogen fuel cell SUV concept either at CES or the Detroit Car Show.
The new hydrogen fuel Audi Q6 h-tron concept is expected to be similar to the all-electric Audi Q6 e-tron Quattro concept car and is expected to go on sale in 2018.
The Q6 h-tron will have the same zero-emissions driving range as the e-tron – 311 miles – and will be Audi’s first venture into hydrogen power.
Reeling from its highly public spat over emissions Volkswagen is keen to get back into the game and be seen as an innovation leader. The automotive giant has revealed it will be premiering the latest display and control concepts at CES.
A teaser video reveals little about the new concepts except to show a new U-shaped lighting design and a body that only serves to fuel the rumour that Volkswagen could use the event to announce its much-rumoured all-electric minibus.
Ford and Google
Ford is expected to announce a new joint venture company with Google at CES, centred around the joint R&D and manufacturing of autonomous vehicles with Google.
The deal with Google is not expected to be exclusive and other car makers may partner with them to get their hands on the technology.
Google is powering ahead with its vision of autonomous vehicles and has already created more than 53 autonomous car types. However, it lacks the manufacturing muscle of carmakers like Ford, Nissan or BMW. In fact, Ford CEO Alan Mulally sits on the board of Google, now known as Alphabet, and the strategy is becoming more and more clear.
Just think of Android with wheels.
Indeed the business of accessories for electric vehicle owners is also heating up. At CES next week, AeroVironment will be revealing the TurboCord, which it claims is the smallest, lightest and most flexible plug-in charger for electric vehicles on the market today.
The TurboCord claims to cut charging time for electric vehicles from 18 hours down to 4-6 hours.
AeroVironment’s PR people say the company is the preferred charging solution for Nissan, Ford, Volvo, Kia, Fiat, Hyundai and Mitsubishi.
The internet of cars
Ultimately, all the various carmakers will be at CES this year in some shape or form, eager to set out their stall, their vision and pave the road (pardon the pun) for the future of cars.
For example, Toyota will show how big data can be used to improve how people travel, BMW will demonstrate a new 3D gesture-control infotainment system, and Ford will show a new 3D graphic dashboard display.
Yep, 2016’s CES should be renamed the Consumer Car Show.
Las Vegas strip image via Shutterstock