Automakers Beware The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is over for another year, and it has been a return to the excitement about technical innovation that the event has been famous for pre-pandemic. But CES 2023 has underlined another trend in consumer electronics: automakers cars have become gadgets. This is why more and more automakers are choosing the show to reveal their boldest new products, alongside the TVs, laptops, and VR headsets – because they fit perfectly.
CES has been a launchpad for car technology for over a decade. Ford announced its MyFord Touch infotainment system at CES 2010, and automakers have continued to release groundbreaking developments in Las Vegas ever since. The advent of EVs has supercharged this process, but this has come alongside a parallel revolution, of which the not entirely loved MyFord Touch was an initial example. Starting with infotainment and sat-nav, cars are becoming interfaces for connected services.
Underlining how far we have come on this journey, many of the most noteworthy launches at CES 2023 were car related. The biggest news was the debut of Sony’s electric car, rather amusingly now named the Afeela. Sony is collaborating with Honda on the Afeela through a joint venture. It looks very futuristic but is a relatively conventional car format, with four doors and a hood / bonnet that has a typical length rather than experimenting with a more “cab-forward” design like the AEHRA SUV.
But the “carness” of the Afeela isn’t the point. According to the Sony announcement, it will be built around Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Digital Chassis, which is a cloud-connected system for telematics, driver assistance and autonomy. Qualcomm claims the in-car processing is capable of 800 trillion operations per second – more than ten times as much as the latest NVIDIA GeForce RTX 4090 graphics card. The Afeela will combine this with 45 cameras and sensors, although Sony only claims this will provide Level 3 autonomy, which still requires human drivers to override when necessary.
These are all relatively typical capabilities, but alongside the driving will be entertainment. This is Sony after all. A partnership with Epic Games will provide new entertainment possibilities such as via the metaverse, according to Sony. What precise form this will take remains unclear, but the general trend is obvious. Just as our mobile phones became smartphones, all about the connected services we experience through them
automakers cars are changing too
Making a call on your phone is just one of its uses, and not the most important one anymore. While cars will always be for transportation, the combination of autonomy with entertainment will radically change how we interact with them. After all, does anybody actually enjoy driving down a highway in heavy traffic at a constant speed? Letting the car do this for you while you watch a movie or play a game would be a much better experience.
The Afeela is due to enter production in 2025 towards a 2026 debut on the US market. No details have been released about powertrain, which is another indication of how the focus of automakers cars has changed. The price hasn’t been indicated either, or whether it will arrive in Europe. But after the images and videos released two years ago, when the car was called the Vision-S, the Afeela brand is now getting much closer to reality. And it’s clearly as much a vehicle for entertainment as it is one for transportation.
The BMW i Vision Dee was also unveiled at CES in Las Vegas, and while it is more about its design as a car than the Afeela, it still focuses heavily on connected services. In fact, its name “Dee” stands for Digital Emotional Experience. One feature is the ability to change the color of the car via the ability to choose dynamically between 32 different external shades. The head-up display has expanded into a BMW Mixed Reality Slider that spans the width of the windscreen, providing much more information than a traditional HUD.
This will arrive in the BMW Neue Klasse cars in 2025. BMW also talks about the front of the i Vision Dee having a “phygital” (physical-digital) icon that enables it to present different facial expressions. Allied with the giant entertainment displays in the i7, it’s clear that BMW is turning its automakers cars into gadgets too.
Another new feature within CES that underlines how much automakers cars are now about technology was the inaugural Software-Defined Vehicle Innovator awards from website MotorTrend. This event, in partnership with BlackBerry, champions the movers and shakers behind connected car technology. Most will be names you haven’t heard before, but increasingly, as with the big guns of the tech industry more normally associated with CES, these will be the people who drive the shape of automakers cars forward, as technology products rather than the mostly mechanical devices they have been for the majority of their existence.
Purists of traditional cars will suck their teeth and bemoan the changes, harking back to the days of roaring internal combustion V8s, gear changes, and analog dials. But the market is changing. Cars are technology products now and will follow development and release cycles more like the other products normally found at CES. Automakers will need to take this on board, if they want to be a volume seller, or they will be left behind by the companies that embrace this direction.