You have to admire CES for its durability. The Consumer Electronics Show got its start in 1967 when it was spun off from the Chicago Music Show and attracted 17,500 attendees at its debut event in New York City. Since then, it has traveled by way of Chicago and Orlando, finally consolidating at its winter residence in Las Vegas, where it has become a mainstay of Sin City’s trade show and tourism calendar.
One could argue that success has gone to its head, resulting in its self-anointed tagline of “the most powerful trade show in the world.” If the moniker is a reference to the show’s ever-expanding carbon footprint, it may well be correct. It takes a lot of juice to power up those acres of electronics.
What I find most interesting is the change occurring in the mix of products taking up all that CES acreage. The event is still awash in home electronics and appliances of every description. Yet, a growing portion of its exhibit space seems to be converting to a high-end parking lot for electrified and digitally enhanced vehicles. These range from cars to combines (the massive farming variety), as well as tractors, trailers, and, of course, tractor-trailers, aka semis.
I was particularly fascinated by the wide variety of automobiles taking up space in the cavernous exhibit halls this year, hailing from far-flung factories around the world. It has led me to think that, increasingly, CES may come to stand for “Cars & Electronics Show” in the minds of many observers and attendees.
What’s In a Name?
Consider the number and variety of automakers who chose to announce or display new models and car concepts at the January 2024 event. Kia, Hyundai, Honda, Volkswagen, and others grabbed headlines.
Conspicuously on the sidelines this year were most American carmakers and many of the European OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) that spent impressive sums to display their new EVs and computerized vehicles at last year’s CES. The late 2023 decisions by Stellantis, Ford, GM, and others to forgo the show in 2024 caused much consternation in the fall. However, Asian makers quickly filled the vacuum, many chomping at the bit to gain entry to domestic markets in North America and Europe.
Chinese EV manufacturers were particularly abundant at the January 2024 show, in some cases showing off vehicles that are equally suited to travel by land or air:
The truth is that the lines between cars and consumer electronics are blurring rapidly. Many automobile-related announcements at the show involved demonstrations of new ways artificial intelligence — particularly generative AI capabilities derived from large language model (LLM) algorithms — are being ported into vehicles.
Bracing for the Asian EV Invasion
One of the best panels on the topic to appear at CES this year was “Coding the Car: The Innovators of Software-Defined Vehicles,” hosted by MotorTrend’s Head of Editorial Ed Loh. Loh’s guests included Mercedes Chief Software Officer Magnus Östberg, who discussed the fiercely competitive market the premium German carmaker faces selling into China’s domestic market today.
“Some American friends of mine don’t really believe me, but it’s the most competitive capitalism I’ve ever seen as long as I’ve been alive,” Östberg said. In order to “move at local speed” to compete in China’s hot domestic market, Mercedes has opened new facilities in Shanghai and Beijing and sought local partnerships that can respond to China’s unique market pressures faster than many of Mercedes’ traditional supply chain partners, he said.
Fellow panelist Nakul Duggal, Qualcomm’s group general manager of automotive, industrial, and cloud, noted that competing for business in China has made Qualcomm a stronger competitor globally. “In terms of the degree at which the market moves, the appetite for disruption, the appetite for experimentation — it’s made us stronger, frankly, in every single business we have participated in in China.
“It’s also a market that is very heavily export-driven,” Duggal noted. Wendy Bauer, vice president & general manager of automotive and manufacturing for Amazon Web Services (AWS), concurred with Duggal that China’s automotive export potential is ramping quickly. “The China-to-global [market] is increasing in activity,” she observed, noting AWS announcements of partnerships with two major Chinese auto OEMs — BYD and SAIC — in November 2023.
Automakers’ Strategic Focus on China
The OEMs “have chosen AWS as their strategic cloud partner around their connected car to really drive that scale and efficiency, and global is on their mind. So, we’re working hard to support our customers through that true globalization, and it’s very active from our seat,” Bauer added.
John Wall, senior vice president and head of BlackBerry’s QNX real-time operating system (RTOS) software, said he expects the number of automotive OEMs operating in China to constrict in the near future, but the opportunities are tremendous. “It’s a race,” Wall said. “The speed at which they are developing is forcing us to put a lot more resources in China, to serve them in-language, in-time-zone.
“Today we’re very, very successful in China,” Wall added, noting recent wins in delivering digital cockpit and ADAS solutions, often alongside partners such as Qualcomm and Nvidia. The pace can be taxing and requires a swift response to market needs. “We are now having to work with the local chip suppliers because that is something, from a geopolitical perspective, that is being requested by the customers there,” Wall said.
What Comes Next for the ‘C’ in CES?
“We have to start thinking about how we are going to do business in China in the future,” Wall concluded. “We know that if we just stay a Canadian company, with no kind of indigenous roots in China, that we’re going to have an issue potentially in the future. And this is something that keeps me up at night.”
Clearly, Wall is not the only global car exec pondering the future impact of China’s burgeoning production levels. It leaves this reporter wondering: What other words that start with “C” might eventually replace “consumer” in the CES name further down the road?