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Car Tech Trends at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show

Smartphone and Apps Connect the Car to Content and Features

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is the place to see the latest technology that will enter our lives and living rooms. Now it's also a showcase for emerging car technology trends as more automakers use CES as a venue to introduce their most innovative car electronics.

Each year, the list of major automakers exhibiting at the giant gadget show has grown. This year Audi, Chrysler, Ford, GM, Kia and Mercedes-Benz had a large presence at CES, and for the last five years automotive executives have delivered coveted keynote addresses alongside such technology titans as Microsoft's Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer.

Although the exhibitors' solutions and technologies on display were different, in one significant way they were all the same — how best to connect vehicles to the Internet and proprietary data streams. Following are some of the most important of these innovations from CES that are shaping up to make this the decade of the connected car.

Technology Trends in Two Words
The car technology trends at 2012 CES can largely be summed up in two words: smartphones and apps. Automakers realize that many drivers own smartphones, and that these Internet-connected devices can be leveraged to deliver content and features into the car. The result: Virtually every automaker showed apps that integrated with its proprietary infotainment platforms.

Ford's announcements underscored that trend. One was a Sync AppLink-enabled National Public Radio app, which allows fans of NPR to get their favorite shows on demand and create custom playlists. Another focused on AppLink's new integration of Scout by TeleNav. The app allows Sync users to connect Scout-enabled smartphones in their Ford vehicle for a built-in navigation system experience — including turn-by-turn navigation and real-time traffic updates — without the high price tag of an OEM system.

Democratization of Car Technology
GM showed the next generation of its MyLink Infotainment head unit, which has been designed in conjunction with consumer electronics giant LG. It uses apps to deliver Cloud-based content such as Pandora Internet radio and Internet-connected navigation. MyLink is in line with a trend toward bigger screens with higher resolution and more voice- and touch-controlled features, but it will be implemented in two of Chevrolet's lowest-priced models, the Chevy Sonic and Spark. It signals another trend — the democratization of advanced automotive technologies.

In another example of this, Kia unveiled the latest version of its Uvo infotainment platform, dubbed Uvo2. The next-generation system adds a layer of smartphone-enabled features — automatic crash notification, geo-fencing, roadside assistance and parked vehicle locator — without adding to the cost of vehicle purchase or ownership. According to Kia, Uvo2 will be standard on most vehicles and an option on entry-level models — and a subscription won't be required for the services.

The services are largely powered by a free smartphone app. What hasn't changed is that Uvo2 still gives drivers hands-free management of mobile phones and music from multiple sources via voice control and touchscreens. Let's just see if Kia is faster off the line this time in getting Uvo2 implemented than it was with the first-generation version.

Luxury in Las Vegas
Showing that a luxury car company isn't willing to surrender the tech vanguard to less expensive makes, Mercedes-Benz made a big splash in its first CES. For starters, Daimler AG chairman and Mercedes-Benz boss Dieter Zietsche delivered a keynote at the show — a significant gesture, coming as it did during the same week as the high-profile North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The main event for the Stuttgart-based company, however, was showing off the newest iteration of its advanced in-car communications system, mbrace2. Billed as "the most comprehensive Cloud-based telematics system to date," Mercedes-Benz made a good case for that claim. The robust feature set touches virtually every aspect of the driving experience, including safety, information, entertainment, personal assistance and vehicle care.

Some of the specific functions demoed included Cloud-based apps (and in-car versions of Facebook and Yelp), traffic and navigation assistance, speech recognition, Internet browsing and search, Google Street View and concierge services. Starting this spring with the launch of the all-new SL-Class, mbrace2 will be included as standard equipment on most 2013 model-year vehicles.

For Mercedes-Benz owners who can't wait that long, the automaker also showed its iPhone DriveStyle app concept that will be available later this year. While mbrace2 is embedded in the vehicle, DriveStyle resides on the owner's smartphone and is combined with a rich graphic user interface in a vehicle's dashboard. It incorporates Yelp for finding local services and can read status updates from Facebook and Twitter aloud to the driver. It also manages music and other content on the device.

Audi used CES to unveil the latest additions to its Audi Connect infotainment platform. While the German automaker mainly showed future concepts, one standout included Audi's current use of the same Nvidia graphics chips found in tablet computers. It's gratifying that car electronics are employing the same cutting-edge technology of products like the Apple iPad instead of two-year-old solutions.

A related Audi CES announcement included a modular central computer that provides for easy updates of hardware so vehicles can stay current with the latest voice control, media, navigation and telephony technologies. More forward-thinking designs included wireless portable device charging and a gesture-controlled head-up windshield display with individual screens for the driver and passenger.

The Aftermarket Connected Car
Showing that connected car app innovations aren't solely the domain of the big OEMs, Viper's SmartStart 3.0 car control app showed just how widespread this technology has become. To date, the app has been downloaded by more than 1 million iPhone, Android and Blackberry users, meaning that many owners are bringing apps into the driving experience and are going keyless.

Available in the first quarter of this year, SmartStart 3.0 showed notable enhancements over earlier versions, including SmartSchedule, a patent-pending feature that allows users to input their daily driving routine and temperature thresholds, then let "the Cloud" do the rest. The app monitors temperatures, handset location and other variables before pushing an alert so users know when to start their cars to heat or cool them in advance for a comfy ride. The Auxiliary Channels feature adds functions such as the ability to control power windows from the app and to monitor vehicle diagnostics, which takes the app in to the realm of more sophisticated telemetrics.