CES – Big and Autonomous

We know that yesterday we said there was no point in trying to pick out a single theme for each year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but if we absolutely had to pick one for this year it would clearly be autonomous vehicles. The show’s Automotive Hall had dozens of companies offering some piece of the autonomy puzzle and every other hall was filled with other examples.

This included chip vendors like Qualcomm and Nvidia, both vying for content in future vehicles. Nvidia did not actually have a booth at the show, just a private off-site meeting suite. Qualcomm had an invite-only booth, which for some reason had glass walls. In the picture below, you can see what they were highlighting to customers – “Hardware in Loop”, “Data Management”, “Autonomous Driving Stack” and “Snapdragon Ride Flex SoC”. Interesting because three of the four are really software topics, only that last one really touches on semis, the thing that Qualcomm actually sells. A couple things we want to highlight here. We wrote about Qualcomm’s auto ambitions a few months ago, and noted that we expect them to start rebranding their Snapdragon line of processors to reflect the focus on automotive – and we see signs of that here with Snapdragon Ride. Second, Qualcomm has an autonomous stack. They have only said this was out there somewhere on the roadmap, but they are already showing it to customers. We will start taking this more seriously when they give a name other than “Autonomous Driving Stack” – maybe QRide, Qutomony.

But there was a lot more to the show than cars. People kept reminding us that this was becoming a show about autonomous vehicles. Nowhere was this more obvious than the Caterpillar Booth. The picture at the top of this post shows their “Baby” hauler, which we were fortunate enough to be able to climb to its 13 foot top (The Cat reps told us that their largest vehicle’s tires were 13 feet high, making this beast their smallest model). This vehicle can be operated entirely autonomously, hauling a few hundred tons of rock around a mine site. Aside from the sheet scale of it, we think this points to an important trend. For passenger cars, autonomy will be a binary event – someday (maybe, hopefully) cars will be allowed to drive entirely on their own, from off to on. But long before that happens there will be many vehicles like this, navigating smaller, limited routes.

Not least of these will be agricultural equipment. John Deere had an excavator and a 50 foot sprayer on display in their booth. These were both capable of human-supervised operation, with a driver at the wheel, just in case, but otherwise moving on their own. John Deere is becoming a technology powerhouse in its own right. In addition to designing their own processors (we think) and tentatively agreeing to a right to repair, they come to CES with a lot tech credibility. For this event, they spent a lot of effort to describe their high-precision location system feature centimeter-accurate GPS sensors and their own GNSS network of ground stations. This is a complex system, not for tourists.

John Deere Excavator
John Deere Sprayer

As impressive as all of this was, it begs the question – how is this consumer electronics? The answer, of course, is that it is not. Highlighting the theme we discussed yesterday – CES is changing. The number of Big, non-consumer items on display has been growing for years.

Perhaps most impressive was how understated much of this was. As the world seems to be jumping into an GPT-fueled AI bubble, none of these companies marketed their products as “AI”, even if neural networks underpin all this autonomy. We think this points to a growing maturity in the industry, as marketers no longer have to fall back on buzz words and can instead point to specific capabilities.

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