By Matt Day. Updated January 06, 2017.
It's called CES, but you'd be excused if you stepped into the annual consumer-electronics extravaganza this week and thought you were at an international auto show.
Silicon Valley and the automobile industry are both pushing to plug more technology into cars, from entertainment and information systems to the processing power and connectivity to allow self-driving capabilities.
CES, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show, in recent years has stepped up its emphasis on auto technology -- even more so this year with Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, Volkswagen, Honda and BMW each unveiling futuristic concept cars at what used to be a radio-equipment trade show.
Instead of emphasizing their vehicles' handling, horsepower or fuel mileage, the companies showed off voice-activated car interfaces and software-controlled autonomous driving.
The Renault-Nissan alliance's self-driving vehicles [seen here], for instance, may come with a familiar voice: Microsoft's Cortana digital assistant.
Carlos Ghosn, who leads Renault, Nissan and the marketing alliance between the carmakers, said at a media event here that the group was exploring placing the voice-activated software in its autonomous vehicles, and would demonstrate some of that potential at the trade show here.
The Franco-Japanese joint venture is hoping to launch more than 10 vehicle models with various degrees of self-driving capability by 2020.
They've enlisted Microsoft's technology in that effort, part of a multiyear deal announced in September. The tie-up envisions bringing elements of Microsoft's cloud, its network of on-demand computing power and file storage, to bear supporting the needs of Renault-Nissan vehicles.
In another partnership, Nvidia and Honda both introduced prototype tools designed to gauge the emotion and status of a driver inside.
Software that Nvidia is building into its self-driving-car platform is equipped with facial-recognition tools and gaze-tracking. The aim is to be able to tell if an occupant is looking out the passenger-side window, for instance, and missing an upcoming hazard on the road.
Honda's NeuV, a concept car designed for the ride-sharing market, can be programmed to pick up and drop off passengers when its owner isn't using it.
Software developed in collaboration with SoftBank is designed to gauge drivers' emotions, and proactively make recommendations for routes or music choices.
Amazon.com's Alexa voice-activated assistant, already a ubiquitous presence at this year's CES, will be offered in certain models of Ford automobiles.
The second-largest U.S. automaker said Thursday at CES that customers can get "Alexa in the car" this summer on vehicles equipped with its Sync 3 infotainment system.
The technology will let drivers order items on Amazon, listen to audio books, play music, check news, search for restaurants and get directions.
The driver just has to push a button on the steering wheel and say, "Alexa," followed by a command such as "find an Italian restaurant."
Toyota debuted a concept car, the Concept-i, that includes software designed to learn from its driver and even drive itself.
The car, which features futuristic curved glass panels, is expected to be tested in the next few years in Japan.
The idea behind the car is to envision what an infusion of artificial intelligencelike software, named Yui in the Concept-i, and automated driving might mean.
For Microsoft, the Renault-Nissan partnership is its biggest effort in connected vehicles, a business segment in which the company is a relatively minor player.
A decade ago, Microsoft had a bigger presence in a high-profile deal with Ford to provide a modified version of Windows to power the automaker's Sync car entertainment system.
That partnership fizzled, and Ford eventually opted to use software from BlackBerry.
When software capable of piloting a car on its own became a possibility, it was pioneered by the likes of Google, Uber and chipmaker Nvidia, not Microsoft.
Peggy Johnson, Microsoft's business-development chief, is trying to build alliances with the burgeoning connected-car industry.
Integral to that pitch is that Microsoft isn't trying to pick a winner in the race for connected vehicles, and can collaborate on delivering mapping services, car-data transfer and backup, or analysis tools for connected vehicles, she said in an interview.
Microsoft has worked during the past two years to unify the work of its product teams on car-related technologies under one banner.
The result, announced Thursday, is Microsoft's Connected Vehicle Platform, which is less a product than an offer to tie Microsoft's network of data centers, or software like Cortana and Office 365, into automotive applications.
That isn't an all-or-nothing proposition.
Customers in the auto industry "can take all of it, they can take some of it. It doesn't matter to us," Johnson said. "It's not one-size-fits-all. We learned that over the last year."
Besides Renault-Nissan, other partners demonstrating auto-focused collaborations with Microsoft here this week include NXP Semiconductors, mapping firm Esri, and insurance company Swiss Re, which is exploring using Microsoft technology to offer new coverage models for connected vehicles.
As cars turn into mobile computers, they "need to be looked at as portable offices or living rooms, places where Microsoft needs to eventually play," said Patrick Moorhead, an independent technology analyst.