SAN FRANCISCO: As the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) gets under way in San Francisco, a number of themes have already emerged, including the growing involvement of automakers and the use of startups by major brands to help filter the huge range of technologies available.

A record nine car manufacturers are attending the 2014 show and are attracting the interest of technology giants such as Samsung as reports predict more than 150m internet-connected cars on the world's roads within five or six years.

"In the past, passengers just used cars for moving, but now they want to enjoy entertainment and access to the Internet," Lee Seung Woo, an analyst at IBK Securities in Seoul told Bloomberg. "It's like a gigantic smartphone on wheels," he added.

General Motors, for example, has just announced the deployment of 4G internet connections on several Chevrolet models to help motorists who want to stay connected with the growing number of apps for automobiles.

The rapid development of this sector is likely to be fuelled by tech companies seeking alternative sources of growth as smartphone penetration rates near saturation. Windows made of transparent flat-panels that provide map displays and other information for people inside the car while still enabling full visibility are the sort of innovation that observers anticipate.

Major brands, meanwhile, are enlisting the assistance of startups to guide them through the technology on show and offer their considered opinions.

"We are always keeping our eye out for the next big thing," Lou Paik, Unilever's shopping marketing director, told Fast Company. "Startups are the best partners for this. They are our eyes and ears on the ground."

Alex Gold, cofounder of Buzzstarter, which helps companies access emerging marketing channels, said this approach meant "brands get to bypass the hype and go straight for solutions relevant to their business".

"At the same time, startups get to watch and learn from the masters," he added. "Startups get to see in real time what potential customers want."

Paik also said that Unilever was "actively looking for technology solutions that give access to new online marketing channels" and this was an area where, Gold suggested, startups could "cut through the noise and help the big boys find relevance".

"Brands are essentially using startups as 'external innovation teams' since they're already in the trenches on a day-to-day basis," he said.

Data sourced from Bloomberg, AFP, Fast Company; additional content by Warc staff