Q&A: The importance of partnership with Gary Shapiro, President & CEO of CTA

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Gary Shapiro has one of the busiest fall schedules you’ll ever hear about. As the head of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)TM, you’re guaranteed to find Shapiro locking down the final frantic details for CES® hosted each January in Las Vegas.

For the uninitiated, CES is the annual lollapalooza of trade shows that took place earlier this month and brought together more than 175,000 industry professionals (the show is not open to the public) to talk and experience all things tech. The nearly week-long mega-gathering in Las Vegas is known worldwide for unveiling the latest and greatest innovations from lesser known startups to the household tech brands we know and love. We had a chance to catch up with Gary to talk about future trends and how the relentless pace of technology innovation is spurring ever more companies to find ways to leverage each other’s strengths.

Q: Partnerships are a big part of CES. What’s different about how companies partner today versus 10, 20 or even 30 years ago?

A: There’s been a huge change, even compared with two or three years ago. I’ve had discussions with major CEOs about this. Their whole attitude has changed. It used to be that you created a company and partnering was thought to be nice but it wasn’t a big deal. There were not a lot of people focused on it. Then the internet came along and partnerships became much more important.

When I’m talking with major companies, you can now find a corporate philosophy where they say, `We have to partner with small companies.’ No one company has all the answers anymore.

Q: You say no one company has all the answers. What brought about the change?

A: Part of it is the technology, because of the app economy. And part of it also is that no company is good at everything anymore. Even companies like Apple, Sony and Samsung are doing partnerships because they have to.

It used to be that there was just a make-or-buy decision; you either made something yourself or you acquired it. Now there’s a third choice. And that’s where you partner; you don’t have to buy or merge. You can just learn and share. Maybe you’ll have a relationship that will allow you to acquire them, but in the meantime they’re giving you value that would otherwise take you years to develop.

Q: What do you see as the keys to the future development and adoption of autonomous vehicles and technology?

A: The history of technology shows consumers very often don’t know what they want until they have it. If you asked consumers 120 years ago what they wanted in terms of transportation, they wanted horses that were faster and ate less. The self-driving car is a huge story to me. About 35,000 people die in the U.S. each year because of car accidents, and 1.25 million die worldwide — self-driving vehicles have the potential to eliminate human error, which is to blame for 94 percent of crashes.

We did our own research and asked consumers whether they would want to live a safer life with protection against drunk driving and whether they would be interested in a test drive in a self-driving car. We found that almost three-quarters of consumers say they are really excited about self-driving technology and almost two-thirds want to trade their current cars for driverless cars.

Q: What do you see as the biggest obstacle?

A: The change to self-driving technology alters so many business models for people that there will a natural urge to try and slow it down until the system is perfect. There’s a whole business world that focuses on people getting hurt and dying in car accidents, and they’ll come up with ways to say that it’s not perfect. My concern is that the perfect should not be the enemy of the great. Rather than have 35,000 die each year, I want to get self-driving and more advanced driver-assist technology on roads as soon as reasonably possible — including having a robust after-market so that cars can be retrofitted.

Q: Can you talk about the broadening participation at CES and how different industries are coming together in many ways — given how technology has evolved in the last few years?

A: We figured out about a dozen years ago that CES wouldn’t survive if we kept it constrained to the audio, video and gaming world. We saw a convergence and wanted to be the home for that convergence as it affected different industries. That was especially true for the automobile sector as people started to look at the technology that was going into cars as much as they used to care about horsepower. We have now had an auto keynote every year since 2008 — except for 2013. And as you know we had one this year with Carlos Ghosn from Nissan. Auto companies tell us that CES is one of their most important trade shows. It’s not like the auto shows, which are designed for reaching the public and showing cars that they can buy in the next year. CES is more important for the deals and partnerships companies can do and for allowing them to get a view of technology that might still be a couple of years out. We have every part of the automobile ecosystem represented here.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn announces at CES breakthrough technologies and partnerships to deliver zero-emissions, zero-fatality mobility

Q: How does a new technology reach a tipping point of ubiquity where it becomes a part of our everyday lives?

A: Innovation is important but so is timing. Sometimes the timing is wrong or the public’s not there, or frankly, the technology is not ready. For example, think back to the late 1990s when the internet began to grow in popularity and use. You had all these companies that just assumed broadband penetration would be there. It wasn’t and they went under.

Acquiring a critical mass is also key. And that’s why you come to CES. You get a critical mass of companies together and they’re more likely to be covered by the press and more likely to have retailers confident that there’s a real category there.

Q: Any esoteric technologies that you are watching now that you think may become mainstream in the near future?

A: We know that robotics will be there in the future. We also believe there will be ‘implantables’ in humans. Drones are another thing where we see a tremendous need. A lot of us grew up watching The Jetsons and a lot of people will want self-driving cars or cars that will fly. These are things that people will buy if they have the opportunity to get them at good prices.

Q: What else gets you the most excited about tech nowadays?

A: I thought 3D printing would take off sooner, but I’m still excited about it and think it will evolve. Food and biologics have the potential to do amazingly well. And I’m as big as anyone on what the smartphone can do; it keeps getting better all the time. Other things include voice recognition, which is absolutely huge. I’ve written two books — mostly by dictation. It’s getting easier and easier. I’m also excited about the potential of the Internet of Things (IoT) because it comprises so much.

Also, as we get older, there are all sorts of uses for predictive intelligence and deep data mining that will keep us healthy. I think that a lot of problems that have plagued mankind around the world, that are killing people or shortening their lives, will go away. It won’t solve war, but in terms of improving the human condition, we’re in the midst of a phenomenal technology transition and this is just at the beginning.

Q: How do you see the role of CES supporting the future of autonomous driving in the years to come?

A: As media, investors, analysts and government officials go around the show, they’re able to see and learn more. What’s our role? First, to help people see the possibilities so that people can get excited. Categories are created and become more real if it’s not just one company that’s behind them. The role of CES is to bring this to the world. We fundamentally believe that we’re making the world better and that’s what gets us up every day.

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