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Look Back at CES 2023: Not Your Father’s Consumer Electronics Show

AUTOMOTIVE / 02.06.23 / Steve Kovsky

After not attending the Consumer Electronics Show (CES®) for more than a decade, the 2023 event in Las Vegas last month came as a bit of a shock to the system.

The overall feeling of sensory overload was familiar, as was the rich diet of showmanship, salesmanship, and the combination of eye-popping innovation intermingled with the chicanery, smoke and mirrors that one expects in Vegas, and at trade shows. What did surprise me was the greatly expanded definition and range of what now qualifies as “consumer electronics.” The category seems to have reached new and previously undreamed-of proportions, including things like autonomous-driving farm tractors the size of houses, houses the size of cars, cars that fly, and planes that drive.

It was clearly not “my father’s CES” – or even my children’s father’s CES. It is indeed a Brave New World for consumer electronics.

“I Sing the (Car) Body Electric”

Let’s take cars. As one CES pundit described it, our vehicles now represent one of three basic locations or venues where we consumers primarily spend our time, and as a natural consequence of being there, use electronics. The other two places are our homes and our offices (which for many of us, have merged into one location). While homes and offices are places where we store and use electronics, cars have actually become electronics. They have morphed into complex devices in their own right, from their electrified powertrains to push-button paint jobs (the last item courtesy of BMW and its premier at CES of a seemingly Wizard of Oz-inspired “car of many colors” option — more on that later).

This inside-out electrification of automobiles has given rise to the term “software-defined vehicle,” or SDV, since nearly all features of the cars manufactured today and in the future can and will be managed and controlled via code. (For a deeper dive into the origins and implications of the SDV phenomenon, I recommend checking out MotorTrend’s 22-minute documentary film, “Coding the Car.")

Reigning SDVs at CES

If I had to pick one category of consumer electronics that seemed to reign supreme at this year’s CES, I would choose the SDV, hands-down.

Admittedly, this was influenced by the view I had of the show, which was largely from the second floor of BlackBerry’s SDV-centric booth at the center of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s newest and most capacious exhibit venue, the West Hall. With its 600,000 square feet of exhibits, including the “largest column-free exhibition space in North America” (328,000 square feet), the West Hall was dedicated to SDVs of every size and description, and all the component technologies, parts, and accessories that go into a modern, software-defined automobile.
View from the BlackBerry booth in the Las Vegas Convention Center North Hall.

Consistent with this growing area of focus for CES, several vehicle manufacturers opted to unveil new SDV models and concepts at the show, and to grace the event’s keynote stages with their respective CEOs. These execs included Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares, BMW AG CEO and Chairman of the Board of Management Oliver Zipse, and John Deere Chairman and CEO John May.

Stellantis used the occasion to unveil a prototype of an electric Ram, dubbed the "Ram 1500 Revolution,” in advance of a production model due for release next year. John Deere used the spotlight to show off robotic farm equipment designed to automate, economize, and “ecologize” agriculture.

Zipse of BMW served up his concept car, the evocative DEE (Digital Emotional Experience), alongside a heaping helping of Hollywood schmaltz that included live and recorded appearances by action star Arnold Schwarzenegger, flanked by famous Tinsel Town talking cars KITT (aka, Knight Industries Two Thousand) from the Knight Rider TV series, and Disney’s haunted VW, Herbie The Love Bug. DEE herself (and indeed, the car’s resident artificial intelligence agent was distinctly feminine) stole the show with features that included an almost hallucinatory “augmented reality mode” (which could give a new definition to the term “road trip”), and an e-ink exterior coating that can display unlimited colors and patterns to suit the driver’s — and perhaps the car’s — preferences and even mood.

BMW keynote presentation at CES 2023.

It was, as I mentioned, a lot to take in.

Recognizing “Unsung Heroes” of the SDV

One of the most rewarding experiences (both literally and figuratively) at CES 2023 was attending the first annual SDV Innovator Awards, presented by MotorTrend, in partnership with BlackBerry. The program was spearheaded by MotorTrend’s renowned editorial team, which is best known for selecting the automotive brand’s prestigious Car, Truck & SUV of the Year recipients. They applied a similarly rigorous and painstaking process, netting out 19 of the automotive industry’s most notable software leaders, pioneers, and domain experts for recognition at this historic event.

It's always rewarding to see “unsung heroes” receive unanticipated, overdue acknowledgment and appreciation for their contributions, and it was a great pleasure to work with the MotorTrend team this past year as they brought this moment about. I was moved by reactions of the award recipients as they received the accolades and absorbed the applause from their peers. I’d like to add my personal gratitude and admiration to each of them for their achievements on behalf of brands including Ford, Jaguar Land Rover, Stellantis, Hyundai, Nissan, Tesla, Rivian, Nio, AWS Automotive, Qualcomm, Nvidia, Mobileye, Waymo.

One of the Nine SDVI Leader Award Winners Wendy Bauer (General Manager, AWS Automotive, AWS at Amazon), for helping the industry unlock the power of data by using cloud technology to accelerate digital transformation of the automotive sector.

Is Big Tech’s Loss Big Auto’s Gain?

While the infusion of energy back into the electronics and tech industry was palpable at this year’s show, it also came at a time when “Big Tech” seems to face an uncertain future. The event was bracketed by news of major layoffs affecting many of the world’s largest software companies: Microsoft, Google, and Facebook led the parade of businesses shedding workers by the thousands – in fact, by the tens of thousands.

From the auto industry’s perspective, those Big Tech layoffs couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. I discussed the vast hiring opportunity in automotive software with BlackBerry’s IoT Division President Mattias Eriksson (in a conversation that will soon be available as part of the BlackBerry-exclusive series, “Get In: The Software Defined Vehicle Podcast”).

“We believe that there is a lot going on in the automotive industry, in software, that outside of the small sphere of the automotive value chain, people are just not aware of — and they should be. Because from our perspective, there is no more interesting, no more challenging place to do software work than in automotive at this point in time.

“We talk about the next-generation, software-defined car as the most advanced IoT edge point there is. There is no other edge point that has more compute power, more sensors, more connectivity, more cloud interaction, et cetera, et cetera.

“Solving the problems in the software stack that is driving that evolution is, from my perspective, the most exciting software challenge there is at present. And with that challenge comes obviously a requirement: If you’re going to solve very difficult problems for many years to come, you need good people — the best of the best — working on this problem.

“There are some incredible people working on automotive software at present, and this (MotorTrend SDV Innovator) Award is about celebrating some of their achievements. We look at the innovators, the pioneers, the leaders, and so forth. And we’re just trying to shine a light, from our small standpoint in the industry, on all the great things that are going on.

“In the background, there is obviously a little bit of an ulterior motive. We believe that the automotive industry as a whole requires many, many, many more excellent software engineers. It’s a problem for everybody, including ourselves, to find these people. And we would much rather have the best graduates from the best schools coming to work on these incredibly exciting problems than tweaking advertising algorithms for Tik Tok, or whatever it is that they do today.”

Mattias’ sentiments, and motives, couldn’t be clearer. If you are a software engineer looking for such a challenge, please check out the BlackBerry job pages or those of any of the other automotive companies listed above. All of them are busy blazing trails in this new software-defined automotive frontier, and perhaps unlike other areas in the tech world, the opportunities are boundless.

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Steve Kovsky

About Steve Kovsky

Steve Kovsky is former Editorial Director at BlackBerry.