Today's post is courtesy of Ken Smiley. Ken is the founder and administrator of CaymanClub.Net and host of Rides That Rock on the Entercomm Radio Network as well as an avid car, airplane and fast transportation enthusiast. He has an extensive background in providing actionable advice from his days as an analyst with Giga and director at Microsoft including regular appearances on Radio Wall Street, CNN, and TechTV. He is currently the Cayman Register chair for the Porsche Club of America and a certified PCA driving instructor.
I just returned from the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and wanted to report on items of interest to automotive enthusiasts. For those not familiar with CES, it is the annual conference held by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) to showcase products from literally hundreds, if not thousands, of vendors worldwide. Given the current economic climate it was no surprise to see that the show had been reduced in size somewhat this year. Estimates ranged from 2-3 football fields less in size (attendance was down 23% from last year), however, there were still plenty of vendors and plenty of products spread out across the entire convention center complex and into many of the hotels as well.
No Killer Apps This Year
Let me start off by saying that I did not see any product in the automotive category that I would rate as a "killer" application or device, but there were several that I thought were worthy of note. First, one of the items I found interesting was from Bosch. It was an in-dash screen that showed 2 different displays depending upon the viewing angle. For example, the driver could be looking at the screen from their angle and seeing a navigation map and directions, meanwhile the passenger looking at the same screen might be watching a movie. The clarity of the screen was quite good and it is slated to go into a production Mercedes next year. Of course viewing in the middle resulted in a mish-mash of the two images but this might have the added benefit of keeping those in the back seat from commenting on how well you are, or are not, following said navigation map.
There were many vendors at CES who were also on display at this year’s SEMA, including Aeromotion. Reportedly, their split wing, which is now available for the Skyline GTR and E36 M3, is in development for Porsche.
A Lot of Me Too Products
The majority of these vendors, however, were your automotive electronics aftermarket suppliers including all of the major amplifier and speaker vendors. I found that loud thumping coming from vendor A's booth to be pretty much the same as that from vendor B. In fact, I was told that with a week I could be set up as an amplifier vendor, not a reseller, but I could have my own product line straight from China. If I wanted to set up shop as "Ken's Krusher" amplifiers and speakers there were people at CES who could make it happen. In a way I sort of felt sorry for some of these vendors because they seemed to have no way of distinguishing themselves from one another and they were all sourcing from China and other places overseas. I can’t see how all of them can survive in this economic climate and surely some of them will not (which only adds uncertainty to any buying decision an automotive enthusiast may be contemplating). Even more seasoned vendors like Monster Cable were seen touting new products outside of their traditional offerings in order to grow their business in the current climate.
I was hoping to see more innovation. I wanted to see longer life or more efficient battery cells for hybrids and full electric vehicles, but I couldn't find any. I wanted to see advances in navigation and in-car systems and found only a few examples of incremental changes or improvements, nothing that really stood out to me.
A Microsoft Moment
I visited the Microsoft automotive pavilion in search of whatever Bill Gates had up his sleeve, actually I should probably say Steve Ballmer since Bill is retired now and Steve gave the keynote. The displays were about the existing Synch product found in many Fords and the MSN service for real time traffic updates, weather, etc. that can be sent to navigation units such as the newer Garmin units that can tune to the service. I did have a Microsoft moment when I spoke with a Microsoft partner from Continental (yes they make more than tires) out of Germany who was working on a complete in-car navigation, HVAC and entertainment system all controlled by Microsoft's embedded software system. During the demo the system had to be rebooted with the caveat that it was still in Beta. It was time to move on.
AT&T was showing its latest satellite television system for automotive use. I could see a Porsche Cayenne owner buying one of these devices which look to be about the size of a basketball cut in half and stuck to the top of the roof. It is then wired into a receiver in the car and displayed on whatever screens are available. The subscription price was less than $30/month so for those who cannot live without their favorite shows on the road, there is an answer and without having to remain stationary or without having to carry a bulky dish on the top of an RV.
Some announcements at the show could certainly have an impact on automotive enthusiasts. For example Samsung showed off its newest MP3 player which I personally found more intuitive and easier to control than an iPod and thankfully it uses a standard USB port and audio jack so integrating it with automotive systems that support either should not be a problem. There was also the announcement of SD memory cards that will be able to hold up to 2TB of information on a single card that same size as what we see today holding "only" 32GB. We may not be too far off from not having to carry around DVDs or Blue-Ray disks for entertainment in our back seats but rather we could bring multiple movies on a single tiny SD card.
I was able to spend some hands-on time with the new foldable and transparent OLED screens, both of which have automotive applications. I was also able to spend some time with the latest OQO device that uses an OLED screen and in my opinion would make for the ultimate portable device for automotive data acquisition and ECU flashing as well as doubling as an in-dash car computer with the proper docking array.
Vendors not as Visible as in Past
I was a little surprised that some vendors didn't show up in more force with products that I have found noteworthy. For example, the new Escort 9500ix radar detector that automatically screens out false signals and can download speed camera and radar trap information from the Internet was relegated to a very small booth. Instead I saw rows of detectors from companies overseas with languages on them I could not even read let alone guess at the feature set. I did not see Dension which makes gateway units for several German cars to allow for iPod and USB connectivity to MOST bus based audio systems but I did see Dice Electronics who also makes a similar device and at one point was partnered with Dension, however, their 997 Turbo display car had the factory iPod connector installed instead. The Mercedes in their booth had the Dice unit.
I was also unable to find any ECU programming vendors or tools, although I did inquire at the Bosch booth and was told that those tools are only shown at automotive industry shows. This shortage of products was perhaps simply another example of cost cutting and reducing the footprint at CES for many vendors.
In summation, there is innovation taking place and products on the horizon that will be of interest to a variety of automotive enthusiasts, however, finding examples of these products and the vendors leading this innovation was more difficult at the 2009 CES show despite the show's smaller size.
In a somewhat related topic, I was able to meet Nicole Scherzinger the lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls and girlfriend of Lewis Hamilton the Formula 1 champion at a private event hosted at the Hard Rock Cafe by Qualcomm.
Let me just say that being the Formula 1 champion certainly has its perks and CES hasn't lost the glitz despite the economic downturn. If you can make the 2010 show next January I highly recommend it.
Did any of you attend? If so, what were your thoughts? See any cool products that are worthy of reporting on? Let us know.
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