A generation ago, technology in the car could have meant fuel injection, or a driver airbag, or even a CD player. Today, if you're driving a car without some sort of touchscreen, Bluetooth, or an infotainment system, you're living in a rapidly disappearing past.
The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is where automakers are coming in increasing numbers to show off how advanced their vehicles have become--to map out the intersection of tomorrow's cars and tomorrow's technology.
This year, the big stories covered the usual science-fiction-sounding topics: cars that drive themselves, laser headlights, high-speed connectivity on the go, and wall-to-wall (or door-to-door) infotainment:
Android in the car. While Apple fanbois wait out the arrival of Siri Eyes Free in their next car, a consortium of automakers is teaming up with Google to develop a new car operating system standard based on the rival Android platform. GM, Honda, Hyundai and Audi are among the companies that will work together for a new information core that will underpin everything from vehicle-to-vehicle communication to infotainment systems.
WIreless smartphone charging
Wireless smartphone charging. It's not a new concept for the desktop, but wireless smartphone charging is now headed to the car. At CES, automakers including Kia and Audi showed integrations of the technology in concepts, and Audi officials said that it's likely the setup will be available on the upcoming 2015 Audi A4.
Audi sport quattro laserlight concept
Laser headlights. With LED headlights just making a splash in new vehicles, the next frontier is already in the mock-up stage: laser headlights. The Audi Sport Quattro Laserlight concept shown at CES offered a hint at how the technology would work in production, with the lasers used for high-beam lighting that can cast a beam of up to 500 yards. Audi says it will first use the beams on its Le Mans racing effort this year, while a production version for passenger cars is promised "soon."
Kia CES infotainment concept
Door-to-door infotainment. Foot-wide TFT screens already are found in today's Mercedes S-Class and Land Rover Range Rover. Why stop there? With the cost of screens plummeting, expect to see a full-width installation in the next five years--something like the infotainment concept Kia showed at CES. One adaptive screen for the driver uses eye motions to change the content displayed, while the other is dedicated to passenger use for functions from navigation to in-car connectivity, even to video playback.
Chevrolet cars now with 4G LTE capability
Higher-speed data connectivity. The next generation of cars that communicate with each other--while also delivering lots of entertainment on the go--will require faster data connections than are available today. At CES, both GM and Audi confirmed that their lineups will offer LTE data powered by AT&T. And in a break with the recent past, Audi also says that its cars' data won't require a separate plan: with the switch from T-Mobile to AT&T, owners can simply add their car as a device to a Mobile Share plan.
Audi Piloted Driving demo--parking
Audi Piloted Driving demo--parking
Cars that drive themselves. Autonomous driving is a strong focus for the auto industry--cars that can steer, brake, and accelerate by themselves, leaving the driver free to perform other tasks. A degree of autonomous capability exists in some cars today, but Audi says that it is pushing to have a self-driving car on the road within two to five years. Its "piloted driving" now enables prototypes to drive unassisted on freeways at speeds of up to 40 mph, but it plans to boost that to 100 mph, with lane-change and off-ramp capability, within five years. As of now, only four states permit testing of autonomous cars on public roads, though automakers are working with legislatures to permit the technology to go mainstream.
Toyota FCV Concept
More fuel-cell cars. Toyota's FCV concept is an indicator of how serious carmakers still are about hydrogen-powered fuel cells, despite high cost and complexity. Toyota promises it will have a roadgoing version of the concept by 2015, and says it's achieved a 300-mile range on a single tank of fuel.