From infotainment to helicopter cabs, the auto industry is flying high at Consumer Electronics Show

The Hyundai S-A1 electric Urban Air Mobility concept is displayed Jan. 7, 2020 at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Copyright Robyn Beck AFP - Getty Images
By Paul A. Eisenstein with NBC News Tech and Science News
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Before you even step inside, one "smart" car will set your seat to the right position, turn on your favorite tunes, and program the GPS for your next destination.


New televisions? Check. Lots of drones? Of course. The latest smartphones? Plenty of them. Classic consumer electronics technology has by no means vanished from CES 2020. But the trade show, one of the biggest to hit Las Vegas each year, has increasingly come to be dominated by the auto industry, which took up nearly half of Sin City's sprawling convention center this past week.

Even traditional consumer tech companies got into the act this year, with Sony delivering one of the big surprises at CES when it rolled out its own battery-electric vehicle.

The automobile is becoming a smart device on wheels, said Sam Abuelsamid, principal auto analyst with Navigant Research, "adopting a lot of technology from consumer electronics, such as voice controls and the ability to get updates over the air."

Perhaps nowhere was that more apparent than at the well-attended unveiling of the Byton M-Byte. The Chinese start-up has been a fixture at the Consumer Electronics Show, two years ago using the event to reveal a concept version of its all-electric SUV. Like the prototype, the most distinctive feature of the production model at CES 2020 is the 48-inch video instrument panel stretching from door to door.

Obviously, it's designed to do more than just show a digital version of your gauges and, perhaps, a navigation map. Byton co-founder and CEO Daniel Kirchert announced the goal is to "seamlessly integrate" all the apps and services in your home and office, as well as on your smartphone, into the M-Byte. The carmaker even announced deals with content providers such as AccuWeather and ViacomCBS. The latter entertainment giant plans to let Byton buyers stream its movies and TVs into their car — when it's in "park," of course.

An interior view of the Byton M-Byte all-electric SUV, expected to enter mass production this year, during the 2020 CES in Las Vegas on Jan. 5, 2020.
An interior view of the Byton M-Byte all-electric SUV, expected to enter mass production this year, during the 2020 CES in Las Vegas on Jan. 5, 2020.Steve Marcus

Virtually every car on the market today features a touchscreen. Porsche's new Taycan battery-car has Apple's streaming music service programmed into its infotainment system and more and more vehicles can access streaming services through Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The demand for such music and video services is expected to grow so rapidly that Land Rover announced at CES that its newest SUV, the Defender, will come with two separate 4G LTE modems built in. Automakers are expected to rapidly adopt even faster 5G technology once it is widely available.

As has been the case in recent years, there was also plenty of talk about self-driving vehicles. One of the most fanciful examples was the Mercedes-Benz AVTR, a show car strongly influenced by the Banshee vehicles in the wildly popular movie of that name. "Avatar" director James Cameron even came out to help unveil the autonomous concept car — which didn't even have a steering wheel. Along with the ability to play movies, the prototype can immerse occupants in virtual and augmented reality "experiences" simulating the film's alien planet, Na'Vi.

One "smart" car will already have your seat set to the right position, the audio system playing your favorite music, and a map set to your next destination before you even step inside.

Nissan showed off its autonomous Ariya prototype, an electric SUV smart enough to know who'll be driving even before you get inside. "It will understand what you are doing and where you are going," explained Alfonso Albaisa, the automaker's creative director. Accessing your calendar, the car will already have your seat set to the right position, he added, the audio system playing your favorite music, and a map set to your next destination.

That's not as much a fantasy as you might think. Lincoln, for one, recently introduced a smartphone-as-key system on the new Aviator SUV that no longer requires a separate keyfob and which automatically sets up your seat, radio, and climate control.

One thing notably absent from CES this year, however, was any actual production vehicles featuring fully autonomous driving. A number of manufacturers, including Nissan and Tesla, had promised that technology would be available by now. But it is proving a lot harder to develop than many had originally anticipated, said Gill Pratt, the head of the Toyota Research Institute.

In the lab, or in a limited situation, with a human ready to take control in an emergency, "is fairly simple to demonstrate right now," Pratt told NBC News. "However, safe deployment (in a production situation, without that backup driver) is a completely different proposition." That said, Pratt is confident autonomous vehicles are coming — eventually.

And they might not be limited to operating on the ground.

The big CES news from Hyundai this year was that it is partnering with Uber to developa flying cab for the ride-sharing service's Uber Elevate venture. A cross between a drone and a conventional aircraft, Hyundai's S-A1 could cut travel time from San Francisco to Silicon Valley from as much as two hours to just 15 minutes, the partners predict. Uber has already signed up several traditional aerospace partners for Elevate — which could begin flying in Dallas, Los Angeles and Australia by 2023 — but Hyundai brings the advantage of its mass production background.

CES 2020 was full of surprises and, perhaps, the biggest came in the form of Toyota's announcement that it plans to build its own city at the base of Japan's Mt. Fuji. To be called "Toyota Woven City," the project will be used as a "living laboratory" aimed at coming up with ways to deal with the myriad problems — such as traffic congestion and pollution — plaguing today's urban centers.

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