Some of the biggest names in technology are putting down stakes on the automobile as a platform for their products and services.
LAS VEGAS — Step aside, smartphones and ultrahigh definition televisions. The most-hyped technology at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) might be a much older piece of hardware: the automobile.
Automakers and technology companies of all sizes are betting there is a lot of money to be made by making cars connect better to our smartphones and the Web — and, ultimately, making them drive themselves around.
The CES 2016 trade show here hadn’t started yet when General Motors said Monday it was investing $500 million in Lyft, a competitor to Uber. As part of the investment, the automaker and the ride-hailing startup will work together on a network of self-driving cars.
Not to be outdone, Ford kicked off a day of preshow news conferences Tuesday by announcing it was tripling the number of its own autonomous vehicles in testing.
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“Beginning this year, you’re going to see us change pretty dramatically, becoming an auto and a mobility company,” Ford Chief Executive Mark Fields said.
Technology natives are trying to meet them halfway, at times creating strange bedfellows.
Ford on Tuesday announced a deal with Amazon.com, best known as an e-commerce giant, to put the Seattle company’s voice-activated digital assistant in Ford vehicles. “Alexa,” the persona that powers the Amazon Echo, will provide a link between a driver’s home and car. That link would enable drivers to use voice commands to start a car, open garage doors or turn on (or off) an alarm system.
Ford and BMW also announced they’re working on in-car apps that let drivers control smart home devices.
BMW says its apps would allow drivers to “precondition” their homes by setting the thermostat for the right temperature by the time they arrive home. The company also showed an i3 electric car linked to a home device that monitors routines, sets routes and starts car functions.
Nvidia, the maker of graphic cards for computers, announced the Drive PX2, a powerful computer designed to handle the requirements of self-driving cars.
“We’ve just started to see the beginnings of this,” said Frank Gillett, an analyst with researcher Forrester.
As with many gadgets on display at CES, cars that integrate seamlessly with people’s smartphones and other elements of their digital lives are still a long way out. Unlike smartphones, which people tend to replace with new models every couple of years, cars can stick around for more than a decade.
“For most of us, it’s an awful long time until we’d see one of these newfangled connected cars in our garages,” Gillett said. “In terms of the speed of the auto industry, their heads are spinning it’s so fast. For the rest of us (in technology), it’s glacial.”
Part of what’s driving automakers to embrace the new technology is the threat that well-funded technology companies, say Google or Uber, will beat them to self-driving cars or dominate the business of automotive software.
Automakers would prefer not to turn over the keys of their business to Silicon Valley.
Toyota this week said it would use Ford’s automotive-software platform rather than alternatives built by Google or Apple.
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Those two companies exert tremendous control over the global smartphone market through dominant operating systems and control of their respective application stores. Automakers, analysts say, want to avoid a similar fate that sees them playing second fiddle in the technology in their cars.
Microsoft may see an opening to break into the auto market as a less-threatening partner.
The Redmond company was an early leader in car software with a partnership to put a version of Windows into Ford cars, marketed as the Sync system. Microsoft has largely been on the outside looking in since that partnership fizzled.
Now, the company is trying to present itself as a less threatening partner for carmakers, offering use of its Web infrastructure network and software prowess.
“We are partnering to build mutual value, not to compete,” Peggy Johnson, Microsoft’s business-development chief, said in a statement announcing a slate of auto-focused deals Tuesday.
Those included a tie-up with Nissan to use Microsoft’s Azure cloud-computing platform to help Leaf and Infiniti model cars in Europe transmit and receive data, similar to an arrangement made with Ford last year.
“Microsoft would like to be there” as a player in connected cars, Gillet said. “They’re nibbling around the edges. Microsoft is not strong in mobile. And mobile is going to be the core for how people engage with connected cars for quite some time.”