The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has long been known for TVs and gadgets, but this year more than ever, car manufacturers are showing off their own integrated technology. They know we live in our cars — and the latest in auto tech is not for under the hood, but between the doors.
The Fun Stuff
Mercedes showed off a concept car that lets you control your navigation system, entertainment and communication with gestures. As you drive (or rather, as your car drives you, since this would only work when the car is in self-driving mode), information about where you are, who's nearby, and what your friends are up to appears as on overlay on your windshield. This might be the coolest thing I've seen at this year's show. But since the self-driving mode itself is still in very early development, don't expect this anytime soon.
Truly Mobile Apps
What you can expect to see is the car becoming a new platform for apps. Ford SYNC continues to beef up their offerings, recently announcing the addition of NPR's app to their voice-controlled offerings.
Mercedes has their own version of Facebook that runs in the center console and is managed with a dial. And Audi has Google Earth and Street View built in. Street View is super convenient for recognizing the location you're trying to find. The Audi interface relies on a touchpad rather than a touchscreen to navigate, which I could see being an advantage in that you might be able to use it without taking your eyes from the road, but it means you have to draw each letter of an address with your finger, and hope the device can read your writing.
One simple gadget for in-car entertainment: the iPad Active Car Mount from Next Base for the back seat. Instead of spending big bucks installing a connected headrest DVD system for the kids, you can just clip this holder to the back of a front headrest and use the iPad you already own.
For true luxuries, though, I'd turn back to the Audi A8L W12 quattro, with its massage controller for the back seats — and even a hidden champagne chiller — if I could afford it.
Responding to Driver Distraction
There is a definite backlash to all this infotainment. Many fear that it leads to distracted driving. So automakers are innovating to counter that possibility — with even more technology.
According to Ford's CEO Alan Mullaly, "Everything we provide is voice activated. It's so intuitive to operate that you're more effective. You're a better driver, yet you're seamlessly connected to the Internet through your smart devices."
Several companies are working on a vehicle-to-vehicle communication system that could warn you of sudden braking in cars ahead, to help prevent pileups. Full implementation will rely on standards agreements between manufacturers, so that Fords aren't just talking to Fords.
But other, active collision-avoidance technology is here today, with Mercedes emerging as the leader in the field. Their system warns you if you are veering into another lane and even takes over to keep you between the dotted lines.
In-Car Health Monitoring
Ford's R&D team is looking at ways to use the blood pressure and stress levels of a driver to help them drive better. For example if a driver's blood pressure and stress levels were up indicating difficult driving conditions, the car could decide to send incoming calls directly to voicemail. The system could also download information on pollen levels to change the air filtering settings and help allergy sufferers. Ford is even talking about integrating glucose monitoring for diabetics. Imagine you have a diabetic child in the back seat. With a connected glucose monitor, you would know they haven't fallen into a diabetic coma, just taking a nap. It seems far-fetched, but given the amount of time we spend in our cars these days, Ford says the research is well worth it.