I hate auto shows. Cars are meant to move, make noise and be felt. Seeing a Bugatti caged on an auto-show stand is worse than watching a lion at a particularly cruel zoo. At least you get some sense of the lion’s power from the languid roll of its shoulders as it pads miserably around its pen. At an auto show? Nothing.
The luxury marques know this. Dragging you out to a cold, soulless exhibition hall in a grim part of town isn’t—I’m guessing—going to get you in a spendy frame of mind. Ferrari or Aston would far rather show you its latest model on some sunlit lawn at Pebble Beach or Goodwood, with a glass of good Champagne in your hand, or better yet, let you drive it on a track or along the scenic, scented roads of Carmel or the Mediterranean coast.
And so it seems strange that luxury carmakers make a show of going to CES, the dauntingly vast tech extravaganza in Vegas. Pressure on floor space means their booths at CES are typically far smaller and less showy than those at an auto show. But in truth, the manufacturers don’t actually want their customers to visit them. They just want you to know they’re there. They are often unfairly maligned as industrial dinosaurs whose grip on how we get around will soon be broken by Uber, Waymo and whichever of the raft of new mobility start-ups actually hit pay dirt. The automakers hope that, by appearing at CES alongside tech giants and start-ups, they’ll appropriate a little of their mojo.
The other reason for carmakers to attend CES is to learn stuff. I bumped into Daimler CEO Ola Källenius three times as he stalked the Las Vegas Convention Center. Despite having an R&D budget in the billions, he told me, his people might spot an idea or a possible collaboration among the myriad tiny booths of exhibitors that would not have presented itself otherwise.
For me, two trends stood out: screens and AI. The full-width displays in Sony’s shock Vision-S concept car and in the production version of automotive-tech newcomer Byton’s M-Byte electric SUV made Tesla’s hallmark iPad-style displays look kind of puny, and I’d bet on others following Sony’s and Byton’s big-screen lead. Endlessly configurable, the screens allow you to display a bunch of your in-car apps at once.
Artificial intelligence is making huge strides, but some applications of it might still be fictional at this point. Audi’s AI:ME concept car appeared at CES with a working interior for the first time and added eye control for use with VR headsets, so you’ll need your Audi to be autonomous before you can free your eyes from the road for long enough to scroll through Spotify with a glance.
The show also saw the launch of affordable LiDAR laser sensors that can build a 3-D image of your car’s surroundings and will make systems for driver assistance and crash avoidance almost supernatural in their abilities. It’s just a pity that, despite the braininess of AI, the data it generates may never be used to drive our cars for us: At the show, in private, car-industry leaders were saying that full autonomy seems to be driving off into the distance rather than getting closer, with the emphasis switching to self-driving trucks, unmanned delivery vehicles and driverless ride-hailing services.
CES is enlightening, but its scale kills the fun. As with most auto shows, unless you have a professional interest I can’t recommend you go. It’s better to read about than to attend. You enjoy the Champagne at that Porsche private party on a manicured lawn, and let me rack up the steps and peer into the ever-bigger screens of the future in Vegas for you.