Best of CES: 5 Nearly Here Car Tech Trends| Edmunds

Best of CES: 5 Nearly Here Car Tech Trends

The latest advancements in mobile payment, infotainment and autonomous driving took center stage at CES 2017 in Las Vegas, and many of these technologies are nearly ready for drivers to use.

Later this year, you'll be able to do things such as pay for gas from inside your Honda, ask Amazon's Alexa to open your garage door and enjoy big-screen navigation in a base-model Camry.

The near future has still more cool things to check out. By 2020, you'll be able to drive a highly automated Audi and have artificial intelligence (AI) as your co-pilot, ready to help spot dangers on the road.

Alexa Helps Make Voice Control Smarter


CES 2017 was a coming-out party of sorts for Alexa, Amazon's virtual assistant that powers its Echo devices. The voice-controlled assistant made its way to TVs, refrigerators, robots and cars. Ford and Volkswagen demonstrated how a user could call upon Alexa inside the vehicle, not only to carry out many of the tasks it already performs (getting weather reports, adding items to your shopping list and reporting sports scores), but also new tasks such as unlocking the car's door, checking on the fuel level, opening your garage door or resuming playback on an audiobook you were listening to at home. Here's a video demonstration from Ford.

Alexa's arrival is a big step forward in improving voice integration in cars. Current systems require you to remember specific commands, while Alexa can recognize more natural language commands and benefits from numerous updates from the cloud.

Mobile In-Car Payments

Mobile In-Car Payments

Ford, Honda and Toyota showed a way you could pay for gas without bothering with a wallet. You would download an app for your car's infotainment system and have a matching app on your phone. In Honda's case, you would store your credit card information in the HondaLink app, then head to a participating gas station. Once there, the vehicle would use Bluetooth to detect that there were pumps nearby. Next, you'd enter the pump number and how much you want to fill. The system would bill the card on file.

The Ford version uses voice commands, and is in a partnership with ExxonMobil. With that system, you would need to register for and sync up a Speedpass account. In either case, you would still have to pump the gas yourself (unless you're in a state that doesn't permit that), but it saves you a bit of time and is potentially safer, given that gas station pumps are common targets for credit-card skimmers.

Affordable Navigation and Smarter Infotainment Systems

Affordable Navigation and Smarter  Infotainment Systems

As the quality of smartphone navigation has improved, the number of people who use in-car navigation has declined. It's hard for automakers to compete with the real-time traffic information and the convenience of entering directions before you've even slid into the driver seat.

Enter Toyota's Entune 3.0, which will debut on the redesigned 2018 Camry. This system will enable navigation on all of the car's trim levels, using Telenav's Scout GPS Link app the driver would install on a smartphone. Once the phone is connected, the navigation will display on the car's center console. The advantage here is a larger screen and less distraction than you'd experience having to look at a phone that's sitting in a cupholder. Entune 3.0 will also be the first system to bring 4G LTE Wi-Fi to a Toyota. One notable omission, however: There's no integration for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

Fiat Chrysler Uconnect with Android Auto

Speaking of those systems, Fiat Chrysler had them in mind as it updated its Uconnect infotainment system, starting with the 2017 Dodge Charger, Challenger, Chrysler 300 and the Jeep Compass. The fourth-generation Uconnect is now powered by the latest version of Android, 7.0 Nougat. This means Uconnect will have a seamless integration with Android Auto, and the really good news for iPhone users is that it will work with Apple CarPlay, too.

Fiat Chrysler Uconnect with Apple CarPlay

Finally, Honda announced an Android-based operating system for its next-generation vehicles. This is the continuation of the trend we saw in 2014, when Android promised to play a larger part in vehicle electronics.

Autonomous Vehicles Are Almost Here. Or Perhaps Not.

Audi Q7 Autonomous Concept

2017 marks the second year in which Audi proudly proclaimed that its autonomous vehicles are getting closer to becoming a reality. Toyota, meanwhile, pumped the brakes and reminded us of the challenges associated with handing over the wheel to artificial intelligence.

"All carmakers are aiming to achieve Level 5, where a car can drive fully autonomously under any traffic or weather condition in any place and at any time," Dr. Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota Research Institute, said at the show. "It will take many years of machine learning and many more miles than anyone has logged of both simulated and real-world testing to achieve the perfection required for Level 5 autonomy."

Pratt added that the timetable for Level 4 autonomy was much shorter, but noted that the system would only work in specific "operational design domains," such as designated roads or certain times of day.

Audi is more bullish. Thanks to advancements in computing power and artificial intelligence, the carmaker promises to have a Level 4 autonomous vehicle on the road by 2020. Audi's partnership with Nvidia, an AI computing and graphics processing technology company, amounts to the "big bang in artificial intelligence," said Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang.

Smaller, faster processors combined with deep neural networks and machine learning have helped speed up the timetable for certain autonomous features. In other words, cars are getting smarter and are able to learn from one another to become better drivers than we humans are.

As an example, Audi demonstrated a concept Q7 SUV on a small test track. The course was a figure-eight loop and featured a variety of road surfaces, with and without lane markings. During the test, Audi modified the course with a detour to simulate a construction zone. The concept Q7 was able to recognize the detour and drive around it. Audi spokespeople pointed out that the course hadn't been programmed into the vehicle, but rather that it was taught how to drive, spot and recognize obstacles in only four days.

Vehicle AI as Your Co-Pilot

Vehicle Artificial Intelligence Looks Inward

What do you do when you have advanced AI and it isn't being used to drive the vehicle? Have it be your co-pilot. The same technology that's used for an autonomous vehicle can also be leveraged to increase a human driver's awareness of his surroundings.

Toyota is working on a Guardian, a mode for its AI, and demonstrated it in its Concept-i vehicle. As Toyota envisions Guardian mode, the driver is meant to be in control of the car at all times, except when Guardian anticipates or identifies a potential safety hazard and momentarily steps in to help he or she avoid it. Guardian would also alert the driver with visual cues and audible alarms. As good as this mode is, it may be a while before we see it. As Toyota has mentioned, it's still solving the difficult issues of handing over control of the vehicle from the AI back to a human.

Meanwhile, automotive AI also can be put to work to understand what's going on inside the car. As Nvidia's Huang put it, "We believe that the AI is either driving you, or looking out for you."

Nvidia demonstrated the power of its AI to carry out a number of tasks that are focused on interpreting what the driver is doing or needs to do. These include natural-speech recognition, facial recognition to set personal preferences, gaze detection to see if the driver is paying attention and lip-reading software to understand what the driver is saying in a loud setting.

While having an AI driver or co-pilot is still a few years out, perhaps Alexa could serve as an ambassador from our automotive future, performing tasks for us and easing us into the habit of talking to our cars. 

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