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Everyone's piling into the car of the future

Illustration of four arrows converging in the middle.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Some of the biggest surprises at CES came from big-name companies that seemed to stray from their traditional expertise: Sony debuted an electric car, Hyundai introduced a flying taxi and Toyota launched an entire city.

Why it matters: The mobility mash-up shows how multiple industries are converging around their desire to own the transportation experience for consumers — whether they are riding alone, or with strangers, with a robot behind the wheel or soaring over cities.

The big picture: CES has become an important venue to introduce what's next in transportation. This year it was about personalizing the ride to make people's lives better, even in a potentially shared driverless car or flying taxi.

  • Sony surprised many with its electric concept car, the Vision-S, showcasing its 360° immersive audio system and panoramic entertainment screen stretching across the front dashboard.
  • Hyundai, fresh off a $4 billion joint venture with Aptiv on self-driving cars, upped the ante on future mobility with its new air taxi concept that will someday allow you to summon a ride using Uber's app.
  • Toyota's Woven City will be a living laboratory to explore how humans and robots can thrive together in a hydrogen fuel cell-powered environment built from the ground up.

There are complications, as Axios' Sara Fisher points out, like who owns the data and how connectivity will work, but that potentially lucrative relationship with the traveling consumer has everyone piling into the mobility industry.

Some other examples from CES:

  • Uber wants to lock people into using its app. In Denver — and now, Las Vegas — customers can use Uber to plan their multi-modal journey and even buy public transit tickets, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva writes.
  • Amazon aims to get its Fire TV software into more back-seat entertainment systems, starting with BMW and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Axios' Ina Fried reports.
  • iHeartMedia announced deals with General Motors, Android Auto and others to bring iHeartRadio's mega library of audio content to listeners in cars.
  • Byton, the Chinese-American EV startup, said it's partnering with ViacomCBS and Accuweather, among others, to provide content and services for the massive 48-inch screen in its upcoming M-Byte plug-in SUV.

And there were plenty of demonstrations of what travel will be like when cars have no steering wheels, pedals or physical controls of any kind. To make a command, just gaze at, or point to, your selection on the windshield or virtual dashboard.

  • Audi's "empathetic" AI:ME concept car, came with virtual reality glasses that had me floating over scenic mountains, chasing a friendly dragon.
  • BMW showed its i3 Urban Suite and the i Interaction Ease concept, a mock-up of a future car interior, where augmented reality on the panoramic display might offer up movies and showtimes as you pass a theater, for example.

My personal favorite, however, came at mid-afternoon on a particularly exhausting day: the BMW X7 ZeroG Lounger.

  • A silky-voiced product expert showed how the NASA-inspired, zero-gravity seat could tilt back as much as 60°, relieving pressure and pain, for perfect comfort to inspire sleep on a long journey.
  • After that, I don't remember anything else he said until he woke me up and told me the demo was over and it was time to leave.