CES Is Now One Of The World's Biggest Auto Shows As Ford To Uber Debut New Technology

Byton, a Chinese-funded start-up, made a splash during the first day of CES by pulling the wraps off its M-byte concept vehicle — or, more precisely, the technology that will be offered in the vehicle. It's anchored by a 48-inch digital display that stretches from door to door across the top of the dashboard and will display everything from gauges to audio, navigation, climate and other information.

The battery-powered M-byte SUV and smaller K-byte sedan underscore all the major changes expected to reshape the auto industry. It's fully electric, uses 5G wireless to stay connected and offers Level 3 autonomy — which is fully hands-free but requires a back-up driver to take over in an emergency. Not only does Byton plan to sell the vehicles to the public, it also wants to set up its own ride-sharing service.

"Our business model will not just be about selling cars, but using the car as a platform," CEO Carsten Breitfeld said in an interview following Byton's CES news conference. "In the future, we will make more money selling digital content and shared mobility."

Hi, Google

The Byton vehicles' huge digital display will be able to be operated by using smaller touchscreens, by gesture control or by voice using the Amazon AMZN Alexa service. And a growing number of other automakers have begun integrating Alexa and rivals like Google Home — or developing their own voice assistants, such as the updated MBUX Mercedes announced this week.

These systems are designed to be more conversational than conventional auto voice control systems that typically require a user to learn precise commands. As they get better, they even allow a degree of conversation between passenger and voice assistant, which "will help make people feel a little more comfortable while they travel," suggested Amy Marentic, head of autonomous vehicle operations for Ford.

Automakers plug in

CES has become an alternative showplace for automakers that traditionally might have displayed their new cars, concepts and technologies at events like next week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Significantly, most of the new production vehicles being launched at CES this year use some form of electrification. While the new Mercedes CLA relies on a conventional gas engine, the German maker also introduced the all-electric EQC, which will be the first model in a new, all-electric sub-brand, Mercedes-EQ.

Also making its world debut: the new Nissan 7201.T-JP Leaf Plus. The original hatchback, launched in 2013, was the world's first mainstream battery-electric vehicle and remains the world's best-selling BEV. But with competition from new long-range models from players like Tesla, Chevrolet GM , Hyundai, Kia and Mercedes, the Nissan Leaf Plus will now deliver 226 miles per charge, more than triple the range of the original version.

Big show for the little guys

While nearly a dozen automakers are displaying their wares and concepts at CES this year, scores of suppliers — both established and start-ups — are fleshing out the show's automotive section.

They are more than a sideshow. Many will play a critical role in tomorrow's industry, especially when it comes to making autonomous and electric and hybrid vehicles possible. The list includes Metawave, a small start-up developing advanced radar technology, and Blackmore, which is focused on LIDAR, a high-definition laser system. Both technologies are becoming essential because they allow driverless vehicles to keep track of what's going on around it.

The words "artificial intelligence" seem to pop up in virtually every CES news conference, whether the product is a connected kitchen appliance, a digital camera or an autonomous vehicle. While AI has many advantages, "it isn't very good at predicting what humans will do," said Gill Pratt, head of the Toyota Research Institute.

But another start-up, Perceptive Automata, came to CES to show off its own technology that it claims can look at body language, motion and gestures to, among other things, predict whether a pedestrian will suddenly decide to cross the street into oncoming traffic.

The company has received funding from Honda 7267.T-JP and Toyota, and the latter automaker could use it for the Guardian technology it announced at CES. Conceived as a "seamless blend of man and machine," it isn't an autonomous driving system, but it uses the same sensors to detect whether a driver might make a potentially fatal mistake. It would then step in and, among other things, steer, brake or even accelerate its way out of trouble.

In an extremely unusual move, Toyota announced it will offer Guardian to its competitors once the system is ready for production in a couple years. "We want it on every car on the road, not just Toyotas," said Pratt, a former executive with DARPA, the Defense Department research institute that pioneered development of autonomous vehicles.

Let's make a deal

Toyota and several other automakers provided space to start-ups like Perceptive Automata to show off their own wares at CES. More significantly, you could spot members of the automakers' teams prowling around the show floor looking for other promising partners.

"There's a lot of deal-making that goes on at CES that you may never hear about," said John McElroy, host of the "Autoline" TV show.

Those deals may very well influence what the auto industry will bring to CES in the years ahead.

Disclosure: Paul Eisenstein is a freelancer for CNBC. His travel and accommodations for this article were paid by an automaker.

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