CES came without many of the bells and whistles and celebrity appearances, and none of the in-person experiences that typically make the show both overwhelming and great.
Though far less groundbreaking than a traditional CES, the all-digital show did feature a decent lineup of discussions on electrification, automated vehicles, the many opportunities of air mobility and more.
Here are some highlights.
A matter of trust—and regulation
Two trends were especially clear throughout CES: Policy makers must move quickly to regulate self-driving technology, and gaining consumer trust in it is critical.
"In the industry right now, there are a lot of different companies working on different technologies, pursuing different business models," David Quinalty, head of federal policy and government affairs at Waymo, said in a session on who will set the rules for self-driving vehicles.
"This innovation and competition is very healthy. It will drive further advancements in the safety and capabilities of AVs, but only if policy makers work quickly without rushing."
At the same time, trust in this technology is just as crucial as having the right legislation for it, said Jamie Boone, director, technology and innovation policy, at Toyota.
"We need people to be able to understand the capabilities of these vehicles and to trust them or else, who are we building them for?" she said.
The U.S. is not the only country navigating both complex regulatory frameworks and consumer trust, said Rachel Maclean, minister of the U.K. Department for Transport.
"People are going to be naturally suspicious and worried about something as groundbreaking as an automated vehicle," Maclean said. "It's really important that we take the public with us and we alleviate those fears and we have that robust safety system."
—Alexa St. John
Air mobility, auto industries strengthen connections
Auto makers are increasingly interested in extending their reach from highways to airways. General Motors became the latest car maker to unveil a path toward a business based on urban air mobility, showcasing its Cadillac-branded electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing, or e-VTOL, aircraft at last week's CES.
CEO Mary Barra hinted at the company's interest in the urban-air-mobility space back in September, so the single-passenger concept did not necessarily come as a surprise. Regardless of whether such an aircraft ever becomes airborne, the concept underscores the potential for GM to tap its electric-battery and autonomous-systems expertise across transportation modes.
GM is not the only auto maker thinking about the interplay between automotive and aerospace. There was a related announcement last week that flew under the radar—no pun intended—that showcases the potential synergies between the two industries.
Archer, an e-VTOL company based in Palo Alto, Calif., partnered with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to access the auto maker's supply chain and experience with composite materials. FCA has collaborated with the startup on cockpit design, and Archer says FCA's general design and manufacturing experience can significantly decrease the cost of production, which they aim to begin in 2023.
"Electrification within the transportation sector, whether on roads or in the air, is the future, and with any new rapidly developing technology, scale is important," said Doug Ostermann, vice president and head of global business development at FCA.
Whether urban air mobility represents a transformative transportation mode or a waste of investment dollars on glorified helicopters remains open for debate. But a research note published by Morgan Stanley last week said commercialization may occur "faster than we originally anticipated." Noting the Cadillac concept and the naming of former Airbus head Tom Enders to the board of directors at flying-taxi startup Lilium, the investment firm said recent developments were "clearly becoming a profound development."
Hyundai, Daimler, Toyota, GM and Geely have now invested in or explored aerial mobility vehicles. Morgan Stanley notes there's perhaps one company conspicuously absent from that list: Tesla.
Given the way Elon Musk spurred innovation in the auto industry while simultaneously leading aerospace growth at SpaceX, might Tesla be a logical candidate to join the ranks of aspiring aviators? Morgan Stanley thinks so.
Emphasizing that the firm possessed no knowledge of such a project, the research note nonetheless said, "We would not bet against Tesla unveiling a concept in the UAM arena in the near future. In fact, we see it as a natural extension for sustainable electric transport and autonomy."
Companies rethinking conventional addresses
Air mobility, of course, is not only for human passengers. Drone-delivery pilot projects have gotten off the ground in a number of U.S. locations, where Walmart, Amazon and other retail giants have shipped groceries and delivered pharmaceuticals.
One of the more interesting projects may belong to Alphabet subsidiary Wing, which now has operations on three continents. During a CES panel discussion, CEO James Ryan Burgess offered details on some of the more novel projects the company undertook in 2020.
In Virginia, the company helped a school library deliver books to students amid coronavirus restrictions. In Helsinki, Finland, Wing delivered meals to families who wanted picnics in a local park.
"We tend to focus on examples of things we know today, but I like to think about what we unlock that's different," Burgess said. "You are no longer tied to an address. There's all sorts of potential that comes with this new technology. And transportation is such an emissions producer, I think these devices can make a huge dent in our environmental goals, as well."
Not tied to an address. That's a phrase that U.K. startup What3Words has taken to another dimension. The company, which works with Mercedes-Benz on the automotive front, has segmented the world into three-meter squares and given each a distinct three-word address. Something.Like.This.
It's interesting to think about an address as insufficient. But in a situation where, for example, a rider wants to be picked up from a particular exit from a particular building, or if a city wanted to set aside very precise curb space for ride-hailing purposes, it could be extremely useful.
By delivering picnics in parks and helping drivers find precise locations, both companies provide some perspective on the limitations of conventional addresses and offer a new way to think about location.