Does CES Matter More to Car Companies Than the Auto Show?

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Does the LA auto show matter more to car buyers than to the carmakers?

Guess who will be the keynote speaker at the Consumer Electronics Show taking place in Las Vegas in January, 2016? Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors.

The high billing  of the CEO of one of the world’s largest auto companies indicates just how important CES has become to carmakers as vehicles become ever “smarter” and more “connected” to the cloud. But where does it leave the LA Auto Show, opening this weekend at the LA Convention Center? Are car shows relevant any more?

On this DnA, we talked about Faraday Future, the mysterious new Chinese-owned car company based in Gardena that’s understood to be building a luxury electric car to rival Tesla’s. One of the points discussed was that Faraday Future may unveil its first concept car early next year, not at the LA or Detroit auto shows, but at CES in January.

This makes sense, says the Wall Street Journal’s Mike Ramsey, because these days “cars are becoming much more like rolling computers that are loaded with software. The amount of lines of software code in an average car is now greater than a 747.” He adds that CES is “an enormous trade show,” bringing in “seven or eight thousand journalists and. . . carmakers have been using it as a launching platform for products the last several years.”

Faraday Future is rumored to be launching its first concept car at January’s CES. If so, says Mike Ramsey of the Wall Street Journal, “it suggests that this car will be very advanced in terms of what it will do on a telematics basis. They’ve talked a lot about how it will be extremely advanced in its connection to the Internet.” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The connectedness of cars worries California’s Representative Ted Lieu; he is holding a Congressional hearing today into The Internet of Cars.” His goal according to his spokesperson: “to highlight how the automotive industry is tackling important issues around cybersecurity, spectrum, and privacy as the age of the connected vehicle rapidly approaches.” His biggest concern is the vulnerability of autonomous cars to hacking.

Evidence of how cars are changing could be found at this week’s Connected Car Expo, an adjunct to the LA Auto Show. On a visit Tuesday, we learned about a car seat developed by Faurecia, a French car interiors company in tandem with Hoana, a Hawaii-based medical technology company. The seat monitors the biometrics of the driver as he or she occupies an self-driving or semi-autonomous car; it tracks heartbeat and sweat to register levels of stress or excessive relaxation, and can provide remedies, like massages for lowering stress while mired in traffic!

Hoana seat
Car seat developed by Hoana and Faurecia can detect and (can try to) ease your stress. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

We also spoke with Derek Kuhn, VP of Sales for Blackberry Technologies Solutions who was standing by a Maserati that had been decked out with the latest “smart” technology that includes software relating to cryptography and key management, antenna-tuning business and operating system software for in-field maintenance and service. Blackberry’s subsidiary QNX provides the operating system that, reports Automotive News, runs in roughly half the in-car infotainment systems sold today.

Each year Blackberry allies with a different car company and shows off its latest connectivity tools. Kuhn explained that this show car is launched at CES in January, then does the rounds of the international auto shows and makes its final appearance at LA’s auto show.

They launch at CES, he says, because CES “for our business — for anybody that’s in the technology business and automotive — has become the largest and most important show on a global scale. It absolutely used to be auto shows but now CES has taken that over.”

So what is the point of the LA Auto Show, opening to the public this weekend?

According to Mike Ramsey of the Wall Street Journal, it’s for consumers, potential car buyers. “It’s primarily for people to come in and see cars that they might not normally get to see all in one place and have someone answer questions about it. So if you’re really in the market or just like to see fun, exotic cars, this is a place where you can go and do it.”

Then there’s another audience, and that’s LA’s car designers.

Chao Feng by his concept car
Chao Feng, a graduate of Art Center College of Design, photographed in 2011, by his concept car. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

LA is home to Art Center College of Design, one of the leading auto design schools in the world, and it is also where you will find the design studios of most car companies.

While companies manufacture cars elsewhere, they locate designers in LA, to be steeped in LA’s creative culture, not to mention its role as the epicenter of car culture. “Design is seen as such an important factor in being able to succeed in the marketplace,” says Geoff Wardle, executive director of Art Center’s graduate Transportation Systems and Design program, “So if you’re looking to attract the best design talent for your company, that’s a very good reason to be here as well.”

One of those designers, Alex Earle, a car designer at Volkswagen/Audi’s design studio in Santa Monica, told DnA that designers used to go to auto shows for research, but that’s changed since the advent of the internet: “I would be sent to the big shows and collect 10 kilos of brochures and I would take 200 photos and present the research to the studio. Now it’s like they don’t send us to shows. That’s because whenever we get a new project we look everything up online.”

But that doesn’t deter him from attending. Designers, he explains, go to the show, because it’s where they “meet with other people in the industry and get a glimpse of what they’ve been working on. But my expectations are usually not too high because so few of the big premieres happen here.”

Earle concludes, “Car shows are cool for people who are buying cars and don’t know what car they want. For designers it’s simply a chance to step out of the confines of the studio and meet each other. It’s not like some big learning experience anymore.”

Portrait of Alex Earle with bike
Car designer Alex Earle with a motorbike he designed in his spare time. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Note: This week’s episode of the CBS drama The Good Wife explored the legal ramifications of self-driving cars — when things go horribly wrong.