As the 2016 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) kicks into high gear, with media days happening now, it’s perhaps not surprising that my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds are full of automotive-related updates. I did, after all, spend a lot of time in the auto industry and many of my connections work for auto manufacturers, suppliers, or as journalists or bloggers covering the industry. It only makes sense that I’d see a lot of news from NAIAS this week.
What some might find unusual or unexpected is that this is the second week in a row that my feed’s been dominated by automotive news coming out of a trade show. Last week, as everyone in the tech and electronics industries knows, was the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Formerly dominated by advanced technology and electronics companies showing off the hottest and latest gadgets and tools that would make our lives if not easier then certainly much cooler, CES has become what Engadget calls “the high tech auto show.”
CES 2016 featured major announcements, displays, or reveals from Chevrolet, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, Audi, Toyota, BMW, Volkswagen, and Ford, among others. It was even the site of the birth of a new electric vehicle company, Faraday Future, which aims to build an all-electric lineup of some of the most technologically advanced vehicles ever made. Indeed, the International Business Times gushed that “CES 2016 was as much a car show as a technology show” — and they were right. Technology publications like Wired and The Verge covered automobiles or automotive solutions as the lead stories from the show, and are even positioning CES as a more important auto show than even the industry ‘grandaddy,’ the Detroit show. Cars, it would seem, have arrived as technology drivers (ba-dum-bum).
For people who aren’t in the auto industry, this technology leadership from automotive feels like a sea change. Most of the articles in the tech media certainly have the tone that this is new ground for automakers and their industry. It’s fair to say that the automotive industry, most prominently the U.S. “Big Three,” has a reputation among many as a slow, “old-school” industry that is behind the times; this reputation is held especially among those who work in or report on the technology industry. Technophiles certainly aren’t used to looking to Detroit, Tokyo, or even Germany for the newest, most intriguing advances in the business.
Many of those who work in automotive would argue that automotive has been among the world’s technology leaders for a long time, and it’s the world catching up to that fact rather than automotive catching up to the world that is driving all this newfound attention. The auto industry has been the leading user of computer chips in the United States for at least a decade and a half. The automotive industry would suggest that its demands have spurred development of semiconductor chip technology, haptics, and even the science of enabling connectivity.
It’s not new for auto manufacturers to be present at CES, even for the Detroit Three; General Motors’ then-CEO gave a keynote at the 2008 show, while Ford’s CEO keynoted 2010 — but those appearances didn’t drive the kind of buzz that has come in 2015 and 2016. And major manufacturers have been scrambling since the late ‘00s to out-do each other in integrating in-vehicle entertainment technology. Since at least as far back as my first year in automotive in 2007 — and very likely well before that — communications pros working for the automakers have struggled to gain acceptance for the narrative that the auto industry are leaders, not laggards, when it comes to advanced electronics and technology. But as we’ve seen, the hot story this year — and even in 2015 — is that the biggest and most interesting advances are happening in cars. Obviously, there’s something different in the air when it comes to the automotive industry, technology, and perceptions of innovation.
So what is it? Why has the narrative automakers have been trying to sell for years suddenly taking hold? Why have cars become the device of choice for many technology companies to develop to? In the next post, I’ll explore why the new narrative — in fact, the new reality — has grown roots.