Weekly Brief: Automakers Still Back-Pedaling at Tech Conferences

Mobile World Congress was back in Barcelona last week after a three-year hiatus because of the pandemic.

Tech companies and telecom giants returned to the convention to show off their fancy new phones, fast charging solutions and far-out concepts like Lenovo’s new rolable laptops and smartphones. One thing was conspicuously absent from the pre-pandemic days: connected car mania. Like the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the Mobile World Congress had become a venue for carmakers to make the argument that cars are the ultimate mobile device. They brought worldwide debuts with them to Barcelona and built elaborate displays to entice showgoers. For instance, Ford’s City of Tomorrow exhibit once featured self-driving auto-livery vans that launched drones from their roofs. AT&T turned an entire wing of the conference into a Connected Car Showroom with interactive experiences to demonstrate the connected car features of today and tomorrow.

There was none of that last week, however, few companies did make announcements. Volkswagen’s software subsidiary CARIAD used MWC to launch a new group application store for VW brands. The app store will act as an open ecosystem for popular third-party apps like Tik Tok, Spotify, Amazon Music, Yelp, Webex by Cisco and more. CARIAD is working with Samsung subsidiary Harman on the project. Audi will be the first VW brand to launch the app store this summer with Porsche and VW to follow. Paul Myles has more details.

Cisco revealed that it is partnering with Mercedes-Benz to turn the new 2024 Mercedes-Benz E Class into a hybrid workspace. The offering will allow drivers and passengers to use Webex to call into meetings and corporate-level calls while the vehicle is in motion and to use the full array of features of the Webex Suite when the vehicle is parked. Noise cancellation technology will enhance the audio experience. As mentioned, Cisco has already partnered with VW and Ford for similar solutions.

That was it for car news at MWC 2023. There were no worldwide debuts or breakout sessions discussing cars as a service. It’s partly a sign of the times. Carmakers are struggling with layoffs, sagging sales, supply chain challenges and the prospect of a potential recession. Not exactly the time to be pulling out all the stops for a mobile convention that’s limping back into motion. Likewise, 2023 is a very different time than 2017-2019, as much of the hype around self-driving cars and vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication has lost its luster.

In other news last week, start-up Scout Motors plans to build its first manufacturing plant near Columbia, South Carolina, where it will manufacture next-generation trucks and rugged SUVs harkening back to the iconic Scout vehicles produced by VW in the 1960s. VW is Scout’s biggest backer. The $2Bn investment has the potential to create 4,000 or more permanent jobs. At full capacity, more than 200,000 Scout vehicles may be produced annually at the facility.

Finally, Ford brought its shuttered self-driving car outfit Argo AI back from the dead as an ADAS outfit called Latitude AI. Rather than focusing on building fully self-driving cars, the new wholly owned subsidiary will try to make Ford’s existing BlueCruise driver assistance system work as a hands-free, eyes-off solution. Latitude AI is launching with a staff of 550, many of them former Argo AI employees.

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