Carmakers look to Las Vegas while big tech heads for Detroit. Will they collide?

THE ANNUAL Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas used to be a jamboree for gadgets you can put in your pocket or hang on your wall. This hasn’t been true for a few years. As vehicles morph from a lump of mechanical engineering to a digital platform for mobility services, and motor shows wane in importance, carmakers have sought new venues to showcase their wares. At this year’s (virtual) CES, which opened on January 11th, they once again joined makers of smartphones, smart toilets and smart dog flaps in showcasing their smartest tech.

CES has risen in significance because vehicles are changing. Bosch, a parts supplier, noted at the show that a typical car had 10m lines of code in 2010; today it has 100m. This month Ford had to idle a factory in Kentucky for a week owing to a global shortage of semiconductors that deprived it of the chips its cars run on.

Electrification of transport will speed up the transformation of vehicles into electronic devices. Battery power requires a new electronic architecture that will come with better integration of hardware and software, and improved connectivity. Harman, a car-tech firm, envisions a “third living space” between home and work, using the development to plug a connectivity gap and offer new in-car services, such as interactive concerts and gaming.

In other ways, though, cars remain a metal box. Although electrification has reduced barriers to entry in the car business—which were formidable for capital-intensive metal-bashing—vehicles are still best made by firms that can manufacture at scale and with a trusted brand.

As a result, car firms are wracking their brains over how much of the software that runs their vehicles’ new electronic functions they should develop in-house and how much to outsource to tech firms. At CES Daimler showed off Hyperscreen, a new touchscreen dashboard for its luxury electric models. Mary Barra, boss of GM, delivered a keynote speech reiterating the Detroit stalwart’s electric and electronic plans. In the autumn GM said it would invest $27bn in electric cars by 2025 and launch 30 new models. Ahead of CES it unveiled a new logo, repainted blue to evoke clean skies and with its “M” made to look a bit like a plug. This week the firm made more announcements about its plans for electrification, including details about its BrightDrop electric delivery van and new electric Cadillacs (as well as, inevitably, a flying-car concept).

Tech firms, for their part, are mulling mobile hardware. Apple’s flirtation with electric cars exemplifies the complexities of the relationship. Rumours that it intended to make electric vehicles first surfaced in 2014. Two years later, when the trouble and expense became clear, it dropped the idea. On January 7th a news report of talks with Hyundai to build an Apple car sent the South Korean carmaker’s share price up by nearly 20%. Hyundai acknowledged it was in early discussions with the iPhone-maker. Apple has yet to comment. Just as carmakers look to Vegas, it seems, big tech is headed the other way.

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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Steel and silicon”


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