CES is not a car show. As you might have guessed from its full name, the Consumer Electronics Show is a vast multi-site extravaganza in Las Vegas devoted to TVs, gaming consoles, drones, internet-enabled doorbells, audio systems, dishwashers, cloud computing, microwave ovens, virtual reality, bluetooth-enabled mountain biking rucksacks, laptops, mobility aids and, increasingly, cars.
But cars are not the point. And not being the centre of attention is a tough experience for some of the more traditional vehicle manufacturers. This isn't about them, and they're not entirely sure how they feel about their glossy hunks of metal being ignored in favour of some nebulous vaporware concept three booths over which they barely understand.
However, they're making a game effort to get down with the techno kids, which gives the show a slightly strange feel. Yes, there are a few concepts on show (including one or two rather good ones) but many car companies wheel out older concept cars, or just one of their current range with some tech buzzwords stickered on the doors, just to have something to put on their stand while they talk about much less physical things.
The themes this year were networking, co-operation and collaboration. Everybody was announcing some sort of tie-up with somebody else. BMW with IBM and its Watson digital assistant; Audi with Nvidia; Ford with Amazon and its Alexa; and Honda in a slightly odd tie-up with movie animation house DreamWorks. Maybe car makers are finally starting to realise that they can't do everything themselves and moving away from their old in-house-only proprietary policies. Maybe.
The other overarching theme, and the reason for those moves, is the race to build autonomous cars. There seems to be a real head of steam behind this now, aided by rather emotive press releases about how many road deaths it would avoid and how much congestion and pollution it would save.
So in a transitional and rather confusing year, here are a few of our highlights:
Toyota We've written about this at some length, but the Concept-i stood out as being both original (well, apart from being more or less the same iPod Classic/R2D2 white as many other concepts of late) and well thought-out. Here's our interview with its duo of designers.
Faraday Future has a giant glowing question mark over the, er, future of the company, but the FF91 seemed like an interesting and surprisingly complete car (though there was a little weird paranoia about its interior, which we weren't allowed to photograph up close). Here's a piece from its launch.
Chrysler brought the Portal, which came complete with all sorts of hype about millennials and connectivity and so on, but looked a bit like a minivan with slightly gimmicky exterior lighting. Underwhelming. Here's more.
Honda did a big press presentation as though it was about to launch a major new model, but then announced, well, a semi-autonomous version of the sit-upon wheeled commode device it's had for ages and a self-balancing motorcycle. Its product line seems to be heading more towards clever aids for the elderly than pushing the boundaries of vehicle design. Maybe that says something about the average age of their executives.
However, it also had the Neo-V, a sort of Smart-like urban mobility vehicle with rear-hinged doors and the usual vague promises of autonomy and interesting interfaces. A few nice details, including copper/gold trim accents but not exactly groundbreaking. It was announced a little while ago, and we covered it briefly here.
Volkswagen brought the previously-seen i-D (which we did a very in-depth piece on here) and a whole lot of buzzwords and phrases like 'always on' and 'connected community'. It was working hard to look like a company who had never heard of the diesel engine, but not entirely succeeding.
Ford, meanwhile, was trying to out-buzzword everybody in its new self-appointed role as a ‘connected mobility provider’ or something. Its stand was a blizzard of placards with futuristic phrases on them, and pride of place was taken up by a hire bicycle, a van from an app-based rental van company in which it's taken a stake, a stab at an autonomous car, and some electric vehicles which looked little different to the existing models. Hidden ashamedly round the side of the stand, though, was a Le Mans Ford GT, which seemed to be gathering a bigger crowd than most of the rest.
Nissan brought out a brace of older concepts, the IDS and the BladeGlider – both worthy enough but a little long in the tooth by usual motor show standards. Yet again, it was more about the interface and the technology than the vehicles themselves.
Hyundai had a stand of two halves, with one half being perfectly standard production cars and the other nothing but cutaways and cockpits rather nebulously marrying autonomy and connectivity. Thinking about it, you could say that for most of the manufacturers present. It was offering rides in an autonomous Ioniq outside the venue, though, and its Smart House Concept was notable for taking the car-home relationship a stage further: the 'car' in this was a detachable pod doubling as a living space when 'docked'.
BMW, as is its wont, had a bigger and more impressive presence than many at the show, with a vast tent pitched outside the halls and enough car park space to offer test drives of current vehicles and a few self-parking semi-autonomous test vehicles. Inside the tent, though, was a new concept entitled 'Inside Future' which took the current trend of dominant interior and UX design to a whole new level. The exterior, mostly clad in very on-trend open-grained pale wood, had only the merest hint of actual wheels. The interior was much more finished, though the self-consciously quirky addition of fake grass, a bookshelf and a throw rug in the rear to emphasis the relaxed nature of self-driving vehicles was more than a little twee. The real meat of the model, though, was the UI – in fact, they could really have dispensed with the car and just shown a tablet screen. It was all about the software. Which was the story of CES all round, really.
Tech firms were extremely well represented in the automotive section of CES; all those names you might recognise from telecommunications or computer chips are moving in on the vehicle market. Blackberry, Tom Tom, IBM, Nvidia, Microsoft, Ericsson – you name it, they all had some sort of car-related offering. And then there were a host of others, who you probably won't have heard of but seemed to have a vast range of potentially useful or interesting in-car technological marvel. Lidar? Collision avoidance systems? Cell tower load management packages? Data storage? All present and correct, plus much else that your future autonomous EV may or may not need. Including, of course, a rather worrying placard on one stand offering an EEG-enabled brain-to-vehicle interface. Gulp.
Overall, it felt as though most of the innovation was happening somewhere else from the car makers’ studios. Maybe not even in their premises at all. But there were a few bright sparks (like the Toyota Concept-i) to show that smart design and clever thinking still should have a place in the future. Well, we hope they do – otherwise it'll all be a bit dull.