CES is now one of the world's biggest auto shows as Ford to Uber debut new technology

Key Points
  • The auto industry is in the midst of change as radical as anything it has faced since Henry Ford switched on the first moving assembly line more than a century ago.
  • Uber wants to launch a flying taxi service by 2023 that would use craft like the Bell Nexus.
The Bell Nexus, a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft is displayed during the 2019 CES in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. January 8, 2019.
Steve Marcus | Reuters

With its glossy black finish, five-person cabin and six huge fan pods, the Bell Nexus looks like it belongs on the set of a science fiction film, rather than the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

But it's just one of the many unusual displays at this year's Consumer Electronics Show focused on the world of transportation rather than the TVs, smartphones and digital appliances traditionally found at CES.

The auto industry is in the midst of change as radical as anything it has faced since Henry Ford switched on the first moving assembly line more than a century ago. Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen now refer to themselves as "mobility service" companies rather than just automotive manufacturers, and that's readily apparent as one wanders through the Convention Center.

Not everyone thinks the solution requires turning to drones like the Nexus, but the exhibits this year show the role that digital technology — everything from laser sensors to electric drive systems — will play in the not-too-distant future.

Here's a look at some of the more intriguing transportation technology found at the 2019 CES, which ends Friday.

Flying cars

With roads in major cities becoming increasingly clogged, Uber is proposing one of the more radical solutions to get people from Point A to Point B in a hurry. By 2023, it wants to launch a flying taxi service that would use craft like the Bell Nexus.

"As space at the ground level becomes limited, we must solve transportation challenges in the vertical dimension — and that's where Bell's on-demand mobility vision takes hold," Bell CEO Mitch Snyder said in a statement announcing the Nexus, one of the craft that could give Uber wings.

Whether the Nexus, never mind the Uber air service, will ever get off the ground is far from certain, but the aircraft is one of the biggest and most striking products at CES.

Autonomous cars

Even if flying cars do take to the skies, don't expect to see a world that looks like the one in the "Blade Runner" films. We won't be abandoning four-wheeled vehicles anytime soon. But self-driving cars are clearly on the way, and there are a number of robotized vehicles on display at CES this year.

Some, like the toaster-shaped concept vehicles that fill the Kia booth, look little like the cars of today. The South Korean carmaker envisions a world in which millions of people have abandoned the idea of owning a personal vehicle, relying instead on services like Uber, Lyft and Google spin-off Waymo, which will field fleets of driverless vehicles that can be summoned at the touch of a smartphone app. By pulling the driver out of the cabin, they promise they'll cost less than having a car in the driveway.

Kia Autonomous Vehicle on display the 2019 CES in Las Vegas.
Paul Eisenstein | CNBC

But the Kia concept cars, like those from several competitors, envision massive changes to the interior of tomorrow's vehicle. If you don't have to sit behind a steering wheel, why not turn the cabin into a mobile living room, office, even a hotel room?

Almost hands-free

How soon completely driverless vehicles will arrive is another topic of debate this year. Some think we could see the first of these arrive in the next year or two. There are plenty of prototypes already being tested.

But even some proponents are pushing back. Only a few years ago, former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn had predicted his company would be selling its first fully hands-free models by 2020. But Denis Le Vot, chief executive of Nissan North America, acknowledged in an interview at CES that the time frame was too optimistic. Part of the reason is technical, much of it is cost-related, the challenge being the need to "make the technology affordable," he said.

Nissan's CES show focuses on what the automaker calls "intelligent mobility." The smart way to move forward, it says, is to deliver new, semi-autonomous capabilities in incremental stages, like its ProPilot Assist system, which, as the name implies, assists drivers in holding to their lane.

Mercedes-Benz goes a step further with the all-new 2020 CLA 250 sedan that made its debut in Las Vegas this week. The coupe-like sedan can operate hands-free under specific circumstances, typically on a well-marked superhighway.

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 Coupe
Source: Mercedes-Benz

The disruptors

While Tesla was a no-show at CES, there are plenty of other start-ups that think they can break into the car business by introducing a mix of cutting-edge technologies often abbreviated as CASE — connected, autonomous, shared and electrified vehicles.

Byton, a Chinese-funded start-up, made a splash during the first day of CES by pulling the wraps off its M-byte concept vehicle — or, more precisely, the technology that will be offered in the vehicle. It's anchored by a 48-inch digital display that stretches from door to door across the top of the dashboard and will display everything from gauges to audio, navigation, climate and other information.

The battery-powered M-byte SUV and smaller K-byte sedan underscore all the major changes expected to reshape the auto industry. It's fully electric, uses 5G wireless to stay connected and offers Level 3 autonomy — which is fully hands-free but requires a back-up driver to take over in an emergency. Not only does Byton plan to sell the vehicles to the public, it also wants to set up its own ride-sharing service.

"Our business model will not just be about selling cars, but using the car as a platform," CEO Carsten Breitfeld said in an interview following Byton's CES news conference. "In the future, we will make more money selling digital content and shared mobility."

The interior of the Byton M-Byte features a 48-inch video screen.
Source: Paul Eisenstein

Hi, Google

The Byton vehicles' huge digital display will be able to be operated by using smaller touchscreens, by gesture control or by voice using the Amazon Alexa service. And a growing number of other automakers have begun integrating Alexa and rivals like Google Home — or developing their own voice assistants, such as the updated MBUX Mercedes announced this week.

These systems are designed to be more conversational than conventional auto voice control systems that typically require a user to learn precise commands. As they get better, they even allow a degree of conversation between passenger and voice assistant, which "will help make people feel a little more comfortable while they travel," suggested Amy Marentic, head of autonomous vehicle operations for Ford.

Automakers plug in

CES has become an alternative showplace for automakers that traditionally might have displayed their new cars, concepts and technologies at events like next week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Significantly, most of the new production vehicles being launched at CES this year use some form of electrification. While the new Mercedes CLA relies on a conventional gas engine, the German maker also introduced the all-electric EQC, which will be the first model in a new, all-electric sub-brand, Mercedes-EQ.

Also making its world debut: the new Nissan Leaf Plus. The original hatchback, launched in 2013, was the world's first mainstream battery-electric vehicle and remains the world's best-selling BEV. But with competition from new long-range models from players like Tesla, Chevrolet, Hyundai, Kia and Mercedes, the Nissan Leaf Plus will now deliver 226 miles per charge, more than triple the range of the original version.

Ford reveals all-new Explorer with upgraded tech features
Ford reveals all-new Explorer with upgraded tech features

Big show for the little guys

While nearly a dozen automakers are displaying their wares and concepts at CES this year, scores of suppliers — both established and start-ups — are fleshing out the show's automotive section.

They are more than a sideshow. Many will play a critical role in tomorrow's industry, especially when it comes to making autonomous and electric and hybrid vehicles possible. The list includes Metawave, a small start-up developing advanced radar technology, and Blackmore, which is focused on LIDAR, a high-definition laser system. Both technologies are becoming essential because they allow driverless vehicles to keep track of what's going on around it.

The words "artificial intelligence" seem to pop up in virtually every CES news conference, whether the product is a connected kitchen appliance, a digital camera or an autonomous vehicle. While AI has many advantages, "it isn't very good at predicting what humans will do," said Gill Pratt, head of the Toyota Research Institute.

But another start-up, Perceptive Automata, came to CES to show off its own technology that it claims can look at body language, motion and gestures to, among other things, predict whether a pedestrian will suddenly decide to cross the street into oncoming traffic.

The company has received funding from Honda and Toyota, and the latter automaker could use it for the Guardian technology it announced at CES. Conceived as a "seamless blend of man and machine," it isn't an autonomous driving system, but it uses the same sensors to detect whether a driver might make a potentially fatal mistake. It would then step in and, among other things, steer, brake or even accelerate its way out of trouble.

In an extremely unusual move, Toyota announced it will offer Guardian to its competitors once the system is ready for production in a couple years. "We want it on every car on the road, not just Toyotas," said Pratt, a former executive with DARPA, the Defense Department research institute that pioneered development of autonomous vehicles.

Let's make a deal

Toyota and several other automakers provided space to start-ups like Perceptive Automata to show off their own wares at CES. More significantly, you could spot members of the automakers' teams prowling around the show floor looking for other promising partners.

"There's a lot of deal-making that goes on at CES that you may never hear about," said John McElroy, host of the "Autoline" TV show.

Those deals may very well influence what the auto industry will bring to CES in the years ahead.

Disclosure: Paul Eisenstein is a freelancer for CNBC. His travel and accommodations for this article were paid by an automaker.