High-speed data connections and carmaker alliances with smartphone operating systems were some of the biggest trends at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
Mazda showed how automakers are making infotainment systems easier to use and less distracting for drivers. CES 2014 was also the year when wearable technology (like smart watches), first started to interface with cars you can buy. Finally, Toyota offered us a glimpse of a future beyond gas cars and "conventional" electric vehicles, showcasing its hydrogen fuel cell prototype vehicle.
Good-Bye 3G, Hello 4G LTE
If there's one thing CES is guilty of, it's making you feel like the shiny new piece of tech you bought last year is obsolete. At the last CES, having a 3G cellular connection in a vehicle was touted as the greatest and latest innovation. It barely got an automotive foothold, showing up in just a few cars, such as the Audi A8 and the Ram 1500.
Flash-forward to CES 2014, and we have something even faster: LTE, which stands for Long Term Evolution. It's a 4G technology that promises speeds 10 times faster than 3G. This year, the 2015 Audi A3 sedan and a number of 2015 Chevrolet vehicles will offer 4G LTE on the AT&T network.
Do you really need high-speed access to the Web in your car? Maybe. One of the major benefits to having an embedded modem in the vehicle is that it can use the Web to download apps and updates from the manufacturer without having to make a trip to the dealer.
An LTE connection gives the Audi the speed it needs to download graphically intensive Google Earth maps with street view. It also is fast enough to stream video and provide Wi-Fi hotspots for passengers.
This high-speed connection is great, but it isn't free. Pricing plans weren't formally announced at CES, but we expect them to resemble what is currently available. Once the free trials run out, expect to pay roughly $25 per month. Want to bring your grandfathered AT&T unlimited data plan with you? It won't work. As of now, auto data plans remain separate from the smartphone plans.
Android in Cars
Audi discussed its entry into the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA) at this year's CES. The OAA is an affiliation of automakers Audi, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai and tech companies Nvidia and Google. Their goal is to bring the Android operating system to upcoming vehicles. Why Android and not Apple? Three reasons: First, Audi already had an established relationship with Google, since they partnered to use Google mapping data. Second, the Android operating system is an open platform and is more developer-friendly than Apple's. And third, there are just more Android phones out in the world. A recent study by IDC showed that Android accounted for 81 percent of all smartphone shipments in the third quarter of 2013.
This means that upcoming Audi vehicles will have all the functions of the Android operating system, including the Google Play store to download apps. This doesn't necessarily mean that you can play Angry Birds or watch YouTube videos from the infotainment screen, however. There are still safety considerations to keep in mind. But if your passengers are set on doing those things in the car while you've got your eyes on the road, Audi's got you covered.
The Audi Smart Display is a 10-inch brushed aluminum tablet that is meant to live in your car and provide vehicle information and all the other functions of an Android-based tablet. It is a durable piece of hardware, too, designed to withstand high temperatures and even hold up in a crash. Audi didn't give further details on price or a date when this tech will be available to car shoppers.
Better Infotainment Controls To Reduce Distraction
Automakers, no longer hampered by the packaging constraints of an old stereo system, now have the flexibility to design new infotainment systems that seek to be safer and more intuitive to use.
Mazda had a 2014 Mazda 3 on hand to demonstrate its next-generation infotainment system, Mazda Connect. The system was designed to reduce distraction with a simple user interface that has a consistent look, regardless of the function the driver is using.
The "Heads Up Cockpit" system divides the cabin into two sections, said David Matthew, vehicle line manager for the Mazda 3. All the pertinent driving information is on the left side of the screen (speed, trip information and fuel, for instance). The comfort items, such as climate and infotainment, are on the right. Even the 7-inch screen's placement on the dashboard and the font it uses for display were carefully chosen to maximize readability at a glance, said Matthew.
The Mazda Connect has redundant physical controls, which gives passengers the choice of a touchscreen or a control knob. Matthew prefers that drivers use the "Commander Knob," which was designed for use without taking eyes off the road. The driver's palm rests in the center of the knob, while each finger can easily reach the five buttons.
Making Fuel Cell Vehicles More Economically Feasible
"For years, the use of hydrogen gas to power automobiles has been seen by many smart people as a foolish quest," said Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota, "but change takes persistence."
Carter announced that Toyota's decades of experience with hybrid technology in the Prius and its own fuel cell research since 2002 have finally reached the point where the carmaker can offer a hydrogen-powered vehicle to consumers for a "very affordable price."
The Toyota Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) — just a concept car so far — is a four-passenger sedan with a range of 300 miles. It takes 3-5 minutes to refuel and only emits water vapor from its tailpipe. The fuel cells take oxygen and hydrogen and convert them to electricity that powers the vehicle.
Fuel cell vehicles are much more efficient than gas- or battery-powered electric vehicles. The FCV's fuel cell output will be more than 100 kilowatts.
"A fully fueled vehicle will be capable of supplying enough energy to power a small house for a week in an emergency," said Carter, "which is why we are developing an external power supply device."
Toyota's fuel cell test mules have logged hundreds of thousands of miles in Japan, the carmaker said. It also has had rigorous testing in the U.S., including in below-zero temperatures in the Rocky Mountains and harsh desert heat in Death Valley.
The Toyota FCV will debut in 2015 in California. Toyota did not release pricing.
There are only 10 hydrogen fueling stations currently in California, but the state is committed to having 40 stations there by the end of 2016. It may not sound like many, but as Carter says, "we don't need a gas station on every corner."
Toyota is working closely with the state to place these stations in locations where they can serve the most people. The target is to have a station six minutes away from a FCV owner's home or workplace.
Wearable Tech That Interfaces With Cars
This year's CES marked the first time we saw the interaction between wearable technology and cars. Developers for Mercedes-Benz were showing off Pebble smartwatches running the Digital Drive Style App. The Drive Style app will display basic car information on the smartwatch, as well as vibrating alerts of upcoming traffic or accidents on the road.
Similarly, BMW showed off a Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch with an app that ran its "i Remote" app for use with the upcoming 2014 BMW i3 electric vehicle. The i Remote app will display information on the battery's charge status and remaining range. The application can also show whether the doors and windows are closed and can adjust the climate control. The app will even recognize voice commands to give it navigation directions.
Time will tell if smartwatches and the other products showcased at the 2014 CES will be more than fads. But that's what CES is all about: launching what seem like far-out ideas (remember when car apps seemed a little futuristic?) and seeing which ones land and grow into products tech-hungry car buyers can actually use.