My return to CES, the Consumer Electronic Show, was something that I had been looking forward to for some time. After all, it had been almost 4 years since I attended the last CES when the Internet of Things (IoT) was the latest solution looking for problems to be solved. As an industry analyst whose passion for IoT is well known, I was frustrated at the weak offerings, poor quality demos and wasted money at the booths. CES had halls and halls of IoT ‘stuff’ that made little or no sense to me, with almost no chance of these startups being around in 2019. But, that’s what these shows are meant to do.
Roll forward to 2019 and my mission was very specific. I was only interested in two major things – 5G and autonomous/self driving vehicles. I was determined not to get soaked up in the awesome glory of 8K televisions, and kitchens that would even scare off Chef Gordon Ramsey! 5G has been positioned as the natural platform for IoT innovation – fast, high capacity connectivity for applications such as autonomous vehicles, video and medical services. However, at this year’s CES, it seemed that the technology world and the trade press had finally gotten into the same room and realized (just like IoT) that 5G can mean many things. To that point, businesses were keen to call their new technology offerings that can be called 5G, 5G. I could see history repeating itself – hype and confusion this year, followed by disillusion and disappointment next year.
Let’s start with AT&T. When is 5G not 5G – when it is 5G E? AT&T insists on using the term 5G for its advanced 4G LTE network. I assume that if AT&T’s commercials say that 5G E is 5G then who are we to doubt them! In my humble opinion it is misleading and muddies the waters into convincing customers that they already have 5G. (By the way the ‘E’ stands for Evolution, or as one journalist put it “it’s a work in progress towards 5G’. Other global operators also made claims that they too were the first to market or the first to have a customer. However, 5G from a marketing aspect was a bust at this year’s CES. It was supposed to be a leading theme, but in reality it lacked reality. Perhaps selling to consumers is easier than selling to enterprise customers who know that 5G will require an upgrade of the entire network infrastructure, which in turn will take time.
Despite the marketing and messaging confusion, 5G is the underpinning technology of some very exciting technologies being shown at CES – in particular in the transportation industry. Here there was proof that progress has been made in the last 4 years. It was clear that core technologies such as mapping and location tracking have made it possible for the auto industry to think about services both inside the vehicle and outside it. Companies such as TomTom, Naver Labs and HERE showed the levels of progress that they have made in navigation, mobility services, and fleet management. Adjacent technologies for EV (Electric Vehicle) combined with advanced high quality mapping, make it possible to know better where to recharge and how to accurately navigate highways as efficiently as possible.
Innovation in this space takes on a new meaning when the vehicle isn’t a concept car, but rather a fully laden truck. At CES there was no shortage of trucking companies showing off their highly connected vehicles. For example, Paccar Inc., the parent of Peterbilt Motors Co. and Kenworth Truck Co. had an exhibit that featured a pair of battery-electric Peterbilt models and a hydrogen-electric truck from Kenworth and Toyota. Autonomous truck startup TuSimple also returned to CES, where it offered demonstrations of the sensors and machine vision behind its self-driving technology and announced plans to expand its US fleet to 40 trucks by June.
At CES, autonomous vehicle concepts from all of the global car brands were on display. Typically the German and Asian manufacturers showed a wide range of vehicles that continued to look like ‘travel pods’ or people movers rather than traditional automobiles, while US-based brands tended to focus on the infotainment services within the car. In summary, CES’s auto offerings showed that there is a very strong ecosystem of partners determined to change the way that we get from point A to point B in a safe and sustainable manner. In parallel, the ability to extend vehicle ride sharing across multiple modes of transportation including bicycles and helicopters (Bell’s Nexus product) is driven by high speed, real-time and accurate data fed from thousands of intelligent sensors.
In conclusion, CES confirmed for me that despite the technical greatness of 5G, telecom operators continue to appear to be lost in their positioning of the product. Part of this may be stemming from the significant investment and consequently the risk of return on that investment. Part of it may be – like IoT – defining what 5G is really all about. Early IoT success stories have shown that it’s as much about positioning the business value around the data as it is about connectivity. Finally, CES showed me that while fully autonomous driving societies are several decades away, the strong industrial ecosystems that exist today are making significant progress towards that future.