If you're a car enthusiast, you typically didn't have much of a reason to pay attention to the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), unless you were interested in the latest gadgets and electronics. Something funny happened in recent years, though.
CES became a car show.
At first, automakers showed off infotainment systems and new tech features for their cars at CES, but at last year's CES, Mercedes-Benz unveiled the wild F 015 Luxury in Motion concept and Chevrolet previewed the 2016 Volt before its full debut at the Detroit.
This year will see even more automakers with a heavy presence at the show. Volkswagen is said to show an electric Microbus concept, Chevrolet and GM CEO Mary Barra will keynote, BMW will show a new concept for gesture controls, Ford and Google will possibly announce a partnership and the ever-mysterious Faraday Future will show off its concept.
Those are the heavy hitters to watch, but additional automakers will undoubtedly have things to announce at this year's show.
Be there no doubt, CES is now a major auto show.
But why are automakers making their presence felt at CES when the Detroit Auto Show starts just days after CES ends? The answer is simple: automakers want you to think of them as tech companies.
Well, they want you to think that, but especially the tech media, for whom CES is the single biggest event of the year. Automakers want their tech-focused products to be seen alongside smartphones, computers and other gadgets, both in the literal and figurative senses.
Take, for example, Faraday Future's concept launch: revealing its highly-anticipated car at CES rather than Detroit or elsewhere says to the world "we're not a car company, we're a tech company that just so happens to make cars." It sends a very clear message of intent to the press and the public.
It's a similar story with traditional automakers, like Chevrolet. Of course, it will still continue to release cars at traditional auto shows, but unveiling the all-electric Bolt at CES aligns that car more with its target audience.
As my colleague Andrew Del-Colle explained in his report on Ford's reinvention as a mobility company, traditional automakers don't want to be disrupted by the Silicon Valley tech world, represented by Google, Uber and (reportedly) Apple. Whether or not Silicon Valley actually has the capability to upend the auto industry remains to be seen, but the threat is credible enough.
Rather than remain steadfast in their traditional ways, susceptible to potential disruption, automakers are aligning themselves with tech companies in various ways. That alignment can come in the form of direct tie-ups, exploration of , an embrace of alternative energy and of course, a presence at CES.
What will be very interesting to watch is how closely different automakers position themselves to tech companies.
If rumors prove to be true, which they likely will, Ford will be very close to the tech world in its partnership with Google. GM, which has shown interest in a partnership with Google, has wholeheartedly embraced Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
On the other hand, Toyota has shown a willingness to develop and alternative-fuel vehicles, but an intense reluctance to work directly with tech companies. It both Android Auto and CarPlay in favor of its own proprietary infotainment, and it will debut its at CES. In building its own maps, Toyota wouldn't be beholden to Google or another tech company's mapping data.
Mapping has become another quasi-battleground between automakers and tech company, since the development of autonomous vehicles requires incredibly detailed maps. BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi , Nokia's Google Maps equivalent, largely as a defensive move against Google. Tesla is also for its self-driving cars.
Unlike Ford and GM, those companies don't want to be beholden to Google, but they will maintain a CES presence to be seen near Google, albeit at arms length.
For enthusiasts, you're not likely to see the next BMW M car or anything like that at CES, but you should still follow this week's events. Where auto shows will be the place to see the cars of now, CES will be the place to see the cars of the future.
CES is where we'll see automakers and tech companies share their visions for the future of driving and mobility itself. If you care about cars and driving – which you probably do because you're reading this website – you need to pay attention to CES.
Our Andrew Del-Colle will be on the ground at CES, so watch this space for more coverage.