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If You Care About Cars and Riding in Them, Then CES 2016 Actually Matters

This year's annual geek confab is all about transportation.

First tech took Manhattan, then it took Detroit.

You can gain a lot of insight into the state of tech by looking at the content and makeup of CES. Begun as a showcase for hardware gadgets, the annual confab transformed, in recent years, into a compulsory destination for the media world, which tech was transforming, largely via destruction.

This year’s agenda shows clearly that transportation is the next industry tech is trying to transform and perhaps decimate.

Carmakers have used CES as a stage to show off futuristic tricks before, but few of those have made it to vehicles on the road. And as Apple, Google and other major Silicon Valley players extend their auto tech blitzkrieg, the pressure is mounting for Detroit to show some high-tech leg.

Thus, the CEOs of General Motors and Volkswagen are delivering keynotes in Las Vegas this week. The second marquee session is focused on urban mobility, with execs from key suppliers in autonomous vehicles — Qualcomm, Bosch, Mobileye — along with the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. Other big auto manufacturers, like Ford, are on hand en masse at parties, dinners and other events.

But it’s not just about cars. Drones, virtual reality and hoverboards are the other hot categories to watch, as manufacturers from around the world will try to outmuscle one another at CES, a competition to be the top seller of a 2016 “it” item.

Here’s a quick rundown:

Detroit Tries to Remain Relevant

In the room with the traditional automakers are several 800-pound gorillas, not least among them the still mysterious car ambitions of Apple and the noisier ones of Google.

That said, the biggest thing unsaid is the undeniable fact that people are probably going to be buying fewer cars. In the coming years, ownership is expected to decline as a service model — including car-sharing, ride-hailing and self-driving cars — takes over. To say the least, Detroit simply isn’t prepared for this massive disruption in the same way the entertainment industry was not.

It will be a jarring shift, to be sure, because when transit is a service, carmakers become a commodity. And their assets aren’t as valuable — one reason why Uber’s valuation is higher than most of the major carmakers’ market caps. “Excellence in software, services and customer relations is much more strategic in the operations of these modern fleets,” said Jonathan Mathus, CEO of mobility startup Zendrive. “That’s precisely what Uber, Lyft, Tesla and Google are good at.”

Carmakers may introduce new high-tech tricks at the Detroit Auto Show, a week after CES, to show they can stand on their own. But CES is where the industry must begin to prove its tech cred.

Three years ago, Tesla shook the car industry with its Model S electric vehicle. It did it again in October, with a deployment of autonomous driving software. That prompted several carmakers, notably GM, to plan to introduce thriftier electric alternatives.

Notably, Tesla is skipping out on the Vegas show. Apple, which is almost certainly working on an electric vehicle of some sort, is too.

In addition to Tesla, the traditional automakers will face competition from newcomers, such as Faraday Future, the buzzy electric car startup that is debuting at CES.

Check out the curtain-raising, hipster-heavy video Faraday recently posted:

Ride-Hailing Arrives

And yet another tech colossus of transit’s future — Uber — is making its CES debut. Banned from Las Vegas for years, the ride-hailing app, along with its leaner competitor Lyft, won approval to operate in the city in September.

For many CES attendees, this will spell relief. The conference sprawls across Vegas hotels, which accrue long, painful taxi lines out in front. The apps, if they can manage the supply and demand properly, should ease the congestion.

Uber is set to roll out free Wi-Fi in its cars for the conference, and perhaps some other tricks. Lyft, the perennial underdog, will probably unfurl its own gimmicks as well. And though cars might be the main attraction at CES this year, they are by no means the whole show.

Here’s are some other things to look for:

  • Virtual reality, which is finally making its way to consumer hands in 2016, will probably be the most talked about technology in Las Vegas. HTC, Oculus, Sony and others are expected to make major announcements. Facebook-owned Oculus has largely dominated the conversation until now, but has made headlines recently for a big product delay.
  • Hoverboard manufacturers, many of them from China and all of them vying to become the iPhone-style market-leading brand, will be all over CES. Hoverboards (which are really self-balancing scooters) dominated the 2015 holiday shopping season, and everyone from Samsung to Mark Cuban has one to peddle. Tech media will be eager to anoint a clear “winner,” which is likely the most reasonably priced, name-brand board (those include Razor, IO Hawk and Xiaomi) that also doesn’t explode into flames.
  • Qualcomm’s obnoxious but impressive autonomous drone teaser is a useful representation for what to expect when it comes to drones this year. Everyone is developing flashy innovations to unseat DJI, the high-end drone kingpin of 2015 with a 4K camera and a software platform that has attracted lots of developer hype. But perhaps the most compelling drone drama at CES is what GoPro will — or won’t — do. The company’s stock has collapsed in the last few months because of tepid camera sales, and GoPro’s soon-to-be-unveiled Karma drone could be its best shot at righting the ship.

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