Mark Fields remembers being treated like a Neanderthal when he joined Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates on stage at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to introduce the Sync in-car infotainment system.
The skeptical tech press in 2007 couldn't seem to understand what Fields, who then ran Ford businesses throughout the Americas, was doing at a show known for cutting-edge phones and video games, he said. Coming from old industry, he jokes that they asked, "Why aren't your knuckles dragging across the floor?"
Now cars are among the main attractions at the International CES that opens Jan. 6 featuring vehicles with touchscreen dashboards and others controlled by smartwatches. Fields is making a triumphant return as Ford's chief executive officer, where he'll deliver a speech about the dawn of the connected-car era. Daimler AG CEO Dieter Zetsche will be there, too, discussing the latest concept of a self-driving Mercedes-Benz. They join a record 10 automakers showing their wares on an exhibit space the size of three football fields.
"CES has become a major launch point for a lot of the big automakers," said Mark Boyadjis, technology analyst for researcher IHS. "CES is a way for them to get on a global stage for technology."
The evolution of Ford's CES exhibit tells the story of the automotive ascent at the trade show that attracts 140,000 visitors. Five years ago, Ford displayed its new Taurus on a 20-foot-by-20-foot piece of carpet. This year, Ford has a two-story display with five vehicles, a wall of digital screens and private offices for conducting business.
"We've come a long way from a single car on a carpet," said Alan Hall, a Ford spokesman who manned that first basic booth.
Ford is not alone. This year, Volkswagen AG makes its debut at the show that also includes Toyota Motor Corp., General Motors Co., Hyundai Motor Co., Mazda Motor Corp., Audi, BMW and FCA US LLC, formerly known as Chrysler Group LLC.
BMW AG's BMW, in its second year at CES, has a sprawling exhibit that includes a fleet of more than 100 cars and covers 57,475 square feet of space just outside the Las Vegas Convention Center. Visteon Corp., a supplier of technology to car cockpits, doubled the size of its display, a gleaming silver and orange structure that houses three demonstrator vehicles and four private offices.
The amount of exhibit space at CES dedicated to car technologies has almost doubled over the last five years to 165,000 square feet, according to Tara Dunion, a spokeswoman for the show.
"When you look at who's coming, with Mark Fields and Dieter Zetsche and all of us, it has become an auto show," Tim Leuliette, Visteon's CEO, said in an interview. "It's reflective of the vehicle becoming a mobile device. Welcome to the new world."
Drivers are demanding their cars keep them constantly connected like a smartphone on wheels. In-vehicle technology is the top selling point for 39 percent of car buyers, more than twice the 14 percent who care most about horsepower and handling, according to a survey last year from the Accenture consulting firm. The number of cars connected to the Internet worldwide will grow more than fourfold to 152 million by 2020 from 36 million today, according to IHS.
"Every carmaker has invested copious amounts of money bringing electronics to their vehicles," Boyadjis said. "It's now less about the horsepower under the hood and more about the horsepower in the center stack" of the dashboard.
That new reality of the road has transformed CES into an essential stop on the trade show circuit for automotive big wheels. Alan Mulally, before he retired as Ford CEO last July, worked the floor at several CES shows. Last January, Audi chief Rupert Stadler wowed the techies with a self-driving A7 prototype powered by processors the size of a notebook. This year, Zetsche will reveal a new autonomous concept car. Mercedes recently showed drawings of a self-driving car with four inward-facing seats around a coffee table.
"CES has definitely become an 'A' show," said Brad Stertz, a spokesman for Audi, which will show its next iteration of the self-driving car on Jan. 5. "It's important now more than ever, especially in the luxury segment, to be seen as a technology leader."
Even traditional technology exhibitors are getting on the automotive bandwagon. Nvidia Corp., a Santa Clara, California-based chipmaker for video games and personal computers, has converted three-quarters of its stand this year to automotive, including displaying a new roadster and an electric supercar.
"Two years ago, our booth would have been filled with PCs and people playing video games," said Danny Shapiro, senior director of Nvidia's automotive business unit, which supplies processors to Audi, BMW and Tesla Motors Inc. "This year we made a strategic decision to shift the focus of the booth on automotive and de-prioritize some of the other things."
BMW debuted its first CES exhibit last year, offering test drives of its i3 electric car. Showgoers queued up for more than an hour to get behind the wheel.
This year, BMW is getting in on the wearable-technology craze that swept the show in recent years with products such as Google Glass and Fitbit. The luxury automaker will show a fully automated valet parking technology where the driver gets out of his car and issues a command through his smartwatch: "Go park yourself." The car then finds an open space in a parking garage and parks itself until beckoned by the driver to return.
"Most of the visitors at CES are really very techie and very nerdy. They really want to test our stuff," Wortmann said. "We keep you entertained, I promise."
Hyundai also is showing off wearables, with a smartwatch that can start or unlock a Genesis luxury sedan with the tap of the finger.