The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas has long been where TVs, cameras and other personal electronics take center stage. However, in the past few years, cars and the technology that drives them have stolen the spotlight. Automotive executives delivered keynote addresses that kicked off the 2015 show, and they painted a picture of a future in which connected cars would be the norm and autonomous vehicles would appeal to the masses — and to the upper classes as well, with some driverless cars offering sociable face-to-face seating last seen in the horse-drawn carriage. Carmakers also showed the smartphone becoming an integral part of the vehicle's infotainment system, with touchscreens that can be controlled with a wave of the hand.
Some of these ideas sound like they're far from reality...and they are. But others are closer than you might imagine. We've gathered a list of the top trends at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show. While our main focus is on technology that is close to production, we also take a look at developments that offer a glimpse into the more distant future.
Infotainment Systems Evolve
Now that cars are more mechanically sound than ever, the vehicle's infotainment system has become the next system to iron out. There have been some growing pains over the past few years as automakers have struggled to create the ideal system. One thing automaker Ford realized is that it couldn't create its infotainment system on its own.
The solution, according to Ford, was to let customers sit down with engineers and design the system together. After 30 clinics and 22,000 pieces of feedback, users and Ford engineers isolated three key needs. The system must be easy to use, fast and familiar.
Ford incorporated all the feedback into its latest version of Sync. Sync 3 features a more responsive "capacitive" touchscreen that users can swipe and pinch to zoom, just like a smartphone screen. It replaces the old "resistive" screen, such as you'd find at a supermarket checkout counter. The smartphone-inspired interface features large touch targets, with high contrast, which make it better for automotive use. The bottom of the screen has a row of buttons that remains consistent regardless of the function that's displayed.
This "function tray" allows quick access to such features as audio, climate control, phone, navigation, apps and settings. Sync 3 benefits from a significant speed increase, compared to the previous MyFord Touch system, according to Ford. Other notable features are better voice recognition, the ability to enter navigation directions in a single text box and the ability to receive software updates via WiFi. Ford Sync 3 will debut this year on 2016 models.
On the luxury side of things, Audi debuted the interior for the next-generation Q7, which borrows the "virtual cockpit" from the 2016 Audi TT. That environment includes a 12-inch TFT display that doubles as the gauge array and infotainment system. For the Q7, Audi adds a touchpad with pinch-to-zoom control and "haptic" feedback (meaning you get a tactile response, such as a vibration, when you touch the pad). It also features improved voice control that will respond to such natural-voice commands as, "Where can I fill up?" or "Where is the nearest shopping mall?"
The Q7 will be the first to debut the Audi Tablet. First shown at the 2014 CES, the Audi Tablet is an Android-based device that will replace a traditional rear entertainment system and allow passengers in the back to surf the Web, input navigation directions and even download a game from the Google Play store. Finally, the Q7 will be one of the first Audi vehicles to integrate Android Auto and Apple CarPlay in the dash.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto Are Coming Soon
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are solutions that Apple and Google use to integrate the smartphone into the vehicle. Both systems require the driver to connect a phone via USB. The car handles the pairing process and once the driver hits the appropriate button onscreen, the system will transition into the Apple or Android interface. Both systems focus on the key features that a person wants from a smartphone when driving: navigation data, messaging, music and phone. The systems take a different approach with how they display the data, but the goal is the same: reducing distraction by getting the driver to put down the phone and rely instead on voice functionality and the presentation of data on the vehicle's screen.
Car buyers won't have to wait long for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Audi, Chevrolet, Hyundai and Volkswagen all had vehicles at CES running both systems. Several of these carmakers said that smartphone integration through these systems will arrive sometime before the end of 2015. While Ford didn't demo the capability at CES, the company has promised that CarPlay and Android Auto will work with Sync 3.
Hyundai, meanwhile, announced that its new Display Audio System ditches the CD player and satellite navigation system to keep costs down and allow more people to have access to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. This means you won't have to buy the top-of-the-line vehicle to get the latest in smartphone integration.
Gesture Is the New Touch
Touchscreens are still one of the best ways to access a number of features in a vehicle, but screens take the driver's eyes off the road. The automakers at CES believe gesture control is a solution to that problem.
BMW showed a concept of its next-generation iDrive interface. Sensors mounted in the headliner of the concept vehicle detect movements near the infotainment system and respond to specific commands. Want to raise the volume? Twirl a finger clockwise. Need to answer a call? Point at the screen to accept. Need directions home? Point two fingers at the screen. This concept was also notable for featuring the first appearance of a touchscreen in a BMW. The system still uses the traditional iDrive dial, but will now offer a redundant touchscreen for drivers who prefer that method.
The Volkswagen Golf R Touch concept eliminates all buttons inside the vehicle and instead relies on multiple touchscreens with haptic feedback. It also has gesture controls to change the seat position and open the sunroof.
Connected Cars Provide Additional Services
When connected cars first debuted, all it took was a WiFi hotspot to wow the crowds at CES. In 2014, General Motors promised to have a connected fleet over the next few model years. Currently, 30 GM vehicles have high-speed 4G LTE connections, with more on the way. This connection makes it possible to lock a door, honk the horn, or remotely start the vehicle via a smartphone app. Many other automakers have followed suit, including a small company called Keyfree technologies, which has created an aftermarket solution to provide similar remote-access features.
Chevrolet demonstrated an advanced vehicle diagnostic program designed to predict when a critical part of the engine is about to give out and require repair. The prognostic service is an opt-in program that constantly monitors the vehicle's battery, starter motor and fuel pump. The automaker selected those parts because they are the ones most likely to leave a person stranded if they fail.
The car transmits data to OnStar's secure servers, where it is analyzed to assess whether a certain part is on the road to malfunctioning. The system will then alert the driver via text, e-mail or in-car warning, suggesting that the driver take the vehicle to the dealer for service. The dealer will then read the warning codes and take the appropriate action. The prognostic service will debut on select 2016 Chevrolet Corvette, Equinox, Suburban, Silverado, Silverado HD and Tahoe models.
Autonomous Vehicles Get Smarter
When it comes to self-driving cars, CES has become the annual progress marker, showing off how much closer autonomous vehicles are to reality.
This year, Audi had its A7 Piloted Driving Concept make a road trip from Palo Alto, California, to the Las Vegas Convention Center. The car drove on its own for more than 550 miles and could initiate lane changes and passing maneuvers. There was, of course, a human in the driver seat, ready to take the wheel at a moment's notice. Audi has seamlessly integrated the autonomous-driving technology into the vehicle so there is no radar array or cameras protruding from the grille or roof.
Such a trip requires an enormous amount of data and calculations that would quickly overwhelm a traditional vehicle's computer. So Audi turned to Nvidia, a computer GPU chip manufacturer. Nvidia created the Tegra K1 and its successor, the Tegra X1 superchip, which enable a car to teach itself with a training algorithm and identify different types of vehicles on the road, such as an SUV, truck or police car. It also can spot a pedestrian, even if he is partially blocked from view by a parked car.
The Tegra X1 is about the size of a thumbnail, but packs the computing power of a room-sized supercomputer from 10 years ago, said Dave Anderson, Nvidia's senior manager of automotive integration.
Mercedes-Benz offered a glimpse even farther into the future. The carmaker says it imagined the F 015 Luxury in Motion concept from the ground up to serve as transport of the future. Passengers can rotate the bucket seats to face each other to socialize while the car automatically takes them to their destination. Inside the vehicle, the door panels have touchscreens, which respond to gestures and enable the passengers to make video calls, browse the Web or keep up on social media. The LED lighting outside the vehicle gives pedestrians visual cues to signal that it sees them and indicates whether it is driving autonomously (blue) or being driven by a person (white).
Audi and Mercedes have not said when their autonomous vehicles will arrive in showrooms, but both said they were confident the technology will be ready long before state governments sort out the licensing issues, insurance implications and ethical conundrums posed by this vehicle of the future.
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