If CES provides a general benchmark of the industry's progress on driver-assist and self-driving systems, then perhaps the inverse is true: Overall industry benchmark projections reflect the snapshot glances ahead at CES. If that's the case, it may be a while before full autonomy takes hold.
Autonomous vehicles have further to fall into the "trough of disillusionment" on the "Hype Cycle" chart that global consulting company Gartner updates each year. The plunge toward the trough's low point is not necessarily an indication of skepticism about self-driving systems so much as a measure of the gap between hype and widespread deployment. Gartner estimates AVs won't be widely deployed for at least another decade.
Likewise, consulting company PwC says autonomous vehicles intended for robotaxi operations will not reach roads in widespread fashion until after 2030. Brandon Mason, the company's U.S. mobility lead, says automakers have come to more greatly appreciate the risks involved in letting computers take responsibility for driving and realized that technology advancements are still needed to make that happen at scale.
"The reality is sinking in a bit," he said. "Those two things are causing a bit of a pause in terms of the rollout, from a polished-product standpoint."
Moreover, the auto market has crested. A full-fledged recession could spell substantial setbacks for both driver-assist and self-driving technology. But at least for now, that's not a scenario that appears imminent.
PwC projects U.S. light-vehicle sales falling to 16.2 million in 2020 and 15.9 million in 2021, then returning to the 17 million threshold in 2022. That level of volume allows automakers, as the CTA's projection suggested, to get a return on their investments by trickling technologies initially intended for fully autonomous vehicles into advanced driver-assistance systems.
"I think you'll continue to see the rollout of ADAS systems," Mason said. "It's allowing for some return on investment now, and to some degree, you need some of that scale. And it's giving consumers a chance to get a little more comfortable with those."
While the time frames for the driverless future may face a reckoning, the destination remains clear. And Shapiro said the auto industry's ability to sneak a peek at its future has been a long-standing tradition at CES.
Back in the 1970s, long before Audi's Jack arrived, the Electronic Industries Alliance, a previous name of the Consumer Technology Association, issued a prescient report at the show that described what the automotive industry might look like by 2000.
"The big finding was that over half the value of the car will be electronics," Shapiro said. "At the time, that was a startling thing that no one believed. … It was right. You know, the timing is wrong. But the predictions, they were right."