Guest Commentary: CES, the Other Auto Show

Doug Newcomb
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Audi Sport Quattro Laserlight Concept Front Three Quarters View

Two years ago at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a reporter from a major metropolitan newspaper called to interview me while I was making my way from one massive hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center to another. His first question was, “So, I hear that car technology is the hottest thing at CES this year?” Having just walked past walls of 3D TVs, rows of the latest tablet computers, and tons of other tech toys at CES, I had to suppress impulsively responding, “Really?”

But if asked the same question this year, I’d agree without skipping a beat. Car tech was not only center stage at the annual gadget gathering, but there was the sense that it had achieved certified CES star status and mainstream recognition as the next big thing. It wasn’t that there were more automakers at the show – although BMW made a large impression at its debut appearance with a small army of i3s massed in one corner of the sprawling LVCC parking lot. Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Kia, Toyota, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz all returned, and Mazda also exhibited for the first time in the LVCC’s North Hall.

It was difficult to miss the automakers’ large, flashy booths, which overshadowed those of aftermarket electronics suppliers like Pioneer and Kenwood on their long-term home turf of LVCC’s North Hall,a.k.a.the “Boom Room,” for its unceasing cacophony of pounding subwoofers. And where else can you see Mercedes-Benz rubbing shoulders with small car audio companies with names like Audiopipe and Powerbass?

The second question I usually get from media covering CES is why car companies have invaded an electronics convention, especially when there are plenty of auto shows. The answer is that infotainment technology has become a new front in the battle for market and mind share in the ultra-competitive car market, in which vehicles in any given segment are often on parity in terms of performance, fuel economy, and other features.After Ford blazed a trail to CES in 2007 to successfully launch its Sync system, other automakers soon followed, looking for similar tech cred and media coverage.

In recent years, automakers have also used CES as a venue to launch new vehicles and concepts. Ford unveiled the Focus Electric at CES two years ago, and last year Toyota took the wraps off of its Lexus autonomous driving research vehicle. This year, Audi rolled its Audi Quattro laserlight concept (pictured) onto the stage during Chairman Rupert Stadler’s CES keynote, while Toyota introduced its FCV hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicle in Vegas.

Unlike at auto shows, CES gives automakers a venue to highlight their latest and greatest tech rather than focus on a new model or concept. Have you ever seen an automaker showcase technology – other than, say, a new powertrain or transmission – at an auto show? Me neither. Consequently, the North American International Auto Show at Detroit the following week saw a dearth of technology announcements, and most of what it did see was recycled from CES.

While CES still pales in comparison to the volume of new-vehicle introductions and concept reveals in Detroit, it has essentially become another auto show. And because CES and Detroit are consecutive major shows that generate lots of press – and in the past have even occurred concurrently – it allows automakers with tech announcements to stand out from the clutter at Cobo.

For many this year it also meant going from being surrounded by masses of Google Glass wearing geeks at CES and the relatively warm Nevada desert to the crowds of suited auto executives and freezing cold of Detroit. Not only are CES and the Detroit auto show too close together, but they also come on the heels of the holiday hangover.

So I say move CES to, say, May. Or, better yet, push the Detroit auto show to early autumn. Or move it to Miami.

Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for over two decades, and he’s alternately proud and embarrassed that 2014 was his 26th consecutive CES. And he still misses the old “Summer CES” that used to be held in Chicago each June.

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