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Is it time to rename CES?


You must admire CES’s longevity. Consumer Electronics Show began in 1967 as a spin-off from the Chicago Music Show. At its New York City debut, it attracted 17,500 visitors. Since then it has traveled via Chicago and Orlando before settling in Las Vegas for its winter home.

You could say that the success of this show has led to its tagline “the most powerful exhibition in the world.” It may be true if the tagline refers to the show’s growing carbon footprint. The electronics in those acres require a lot more power.

What I find the most interesting is that the product mix at CES has changed. It’s still filled with home appliances and electronics of all kinds. The event is still awash in home electronics and appliances of all kinds. However, it seems that a large portion of its space has been converted into a high-end car park for digitally enhanced and electrified vehicles. They range from cars and combines (the huge farming variety), to trailers, tractors, and of course tractor-trailers.

I was fascinated by the variety of automobiles in the exhibit halls, which came from all over 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 the meaning of a name

Take a look at how many automakers chose to display or announce new car models and concepts during the event in January 2024. Kia, Hyundai Honda, Volkswagen and other automakers grabbed the headlines.

The majority of American carmakers, as well as many European OEMs who spent a lot to show off their new EVs at the CES last year, were notably absent from the scene this year. Stellantis Ford GM, and other carmakers made the decision in late 2023 to not attend the show in 2024. This led to much confusion in the fall. Asian manufacturers quickly filled the void, with many eager to enter the domestic markets of North America and Europe.

Chinese EV makers were particularly plentiful at the January 2019 show. Some of them displayed vehicles that can be used to travel on land or by air.

It is true that the boundaries between consumer electronics and cars are rapidly blurring. 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.

Get ready for the Asian EV Invasion

The panel “The Future of Work” was one of the most interesting panels at CES in this year.Coding the Car: The Innovators of Software-Defined VehiclesEd Loh, MotorTrend’s head of editorial, hosted the event. 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. Mercedes is “moving at local speed” in order to compete with China’s hot market. It has also opened new facilities and sought local partnerships in Shanghai, Beijing, and other cities.

Nakul Duggal, Qualcomm’s general manager of industrial, automotive and cloud division, said that Qualcomm is now a stronger global competitor because it has competed for business in China. “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.

Duggal added, “It is also a very export-oriented market.” 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.

Focus of Automakers on China

The OEMs have “chosen AWS as their strategic partner around their connected vehicle to really drive this scale and efficiency and global is on their minds.” Bauer said, “We’re actively working to support our customers in this globalization and we are very active.”

John Wall is the senior vice-president and head of BlackBerry QNX’s real-time OS (RTOS). He said that while he anticipates a reduction in the number automotive OEMs in China in the future, the opportunities will be tremendous. Wall stated that “it’s a race.” The speed of their development forces us to spend more money in China in order to better serve them, both in terms of language and time zone.

Wall continued, “We’re today very, very succesful in China.” Wall noted recent successes in delivering digital cockpit solutions and ADAS, often with partners like Qualcomm and Nvidia. It is important to respond quickly to the market’s needs. The pace of business can be very fast. Wall explained that “we are now working with the local suppliers of chips because, from a geographic perspective, this is something that the customers in that area have requested.”

What Comes Next for the ‘C’ in CES?

Wall concluded: “We must start thinking about our future business plans in China.” “We are aware that if our company remains a Canadian one, without any kind of roots in China, we may have problems in the near future. This is what keeps me awake at night.

Wall isn’t the only car executive who has been pondering China’s future impact. It makes this reporter wonder: what other words starting with “C”, such as “consumer”, might replace “consumer” at CES in the future?