The topic was the Internet of Things, with a strong emphasis on smart cars and mobile devices connected to a ubiquitous data cloud. And with so many of the tens of thousands at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona gripping iPhones while listening to Carlos Ghosn, CEO of the Nissan-Renault Alliance, he knew better than to shy away from the elephant in the room.
"When Apple says they are going to come with an electric car in 2020, that's good news for us," he said, appearing during a Monday keynote presentation at the trade show, which runs through Thursday.
In other words, a self-accelerating vehicle revs all engines. Ghosn was responding to a question about Apple's disclosure only 10 days ago that it had car-making aims. But what about Tesla, Google, Facebook, etc.—are they challenges to traditional automotive players?
"They are not competitors, they are allies," Ghosn said. "It's not about the biggest share of electric cars."
It's about moving the market to technology that's more environmentally friendly, he added.
Also, Ghosn reiterated his company's stance of having a self-driving option for traffic jams by 2016; an automated feature that actually changes lanes in highways by 2018; and a vehicle that drives itself in cities by 2020.
"In 10 years, you'll have cars without the driver," the CEO predicted. "It is here, and it's going to transform the products."
He added, however, that "we are betting much more with autonomous cars with a driver in the car than [purely driverless] cars."
Ghosn rattled off a few other intriguing items about Nissan-Renault's electric car business:
- One-third of electric car sales in the United States take place in Atlanta.
- The U.S. is the No. 1 market for electric cars, followed by Japan and China.
- The cost of batteries for electric cars is a huge challenge in making them affordable.
Later during the same presentation, Ralph de la Vega, AT&T's CEO of mobile and business solutions, said consumers increasingly want their cars to intersect with new technology, pointing toward a recent partnership with General Motors that will make its cars increasingly souped up by the Internet.
"We didn't know there was going to be this pent-up demand," he said. "Customers are waking up to the value of connected cars."
And no Internet of Things conversation nowadays would be complete without emerging use cases for wearables. SAP CEO Bill McDermott cited how his software company is helping the clothing brand Under Armour, realizing the business potential of digital bells and whistles in sports gear.
"They make shirts and shoes," McDermott explained. "They need to know your apparel might be running out of gas so they can sell you new ones.... It's what the new economy is all about."
Meanwhile, more than 70,000 mobile-focused marketers and technologists are expected to attend the 28th Mobile World Congress this week. They'll roam the Fira Gran Via area of this city on Spain's eastern Mediterranean coast, chiefly visiting a convention center that more resembles a gigantic airport than a conference hall. The space includes moving walkways to expedite the trek from one speech to the next, retail shops and dozens of restaurants with cuisines from around the world.