LAS VEGAS -- The most striking innovation on display this week at the Consumer Electronics Show, the world's largest consumer tech tradeshow, came not from Silicon Valley, but from Detroit.
The vehicles on display underscored a sea change taking place in the automotive industry, one driven by carmakers' relentless attempts to distinguish their wares by incorporating drivers' demand for more convenience and customization in their cars.
Automobiles are becoming more like computers than ever before. Carmakers are harnessing technology that has traditionally been the purview of gadget makers like Samsung and LG -- touchscreens, software, apps and social media -- to expand the capabilities of the car, even going so far as to transform it from a vehicle to a companion and entertainment hub.
"Just like a smartphone can be so much more than a means of communication, a smart car can be so much more than just a mode of transportation," Dieter Zetsche, chairman of automotive company Daimler AG, said during a keynote address.
Though 4,000-pound automobiles might seem out of place at the Consumer Electronics Show, where most exhibitors display devices that can fit on a desk or in the palm of your hand, carmakers' increasing emphasis on bringing tech to the dashboard have made them a growing part of the annual tradeshow. This year's expo featured a record number of auto exhibitors, more than 400 in total, according to the show's organizer, the Consumer Electronics Association.
Many car companies have concentrated on delivering enhanced entertainment systems, navigation tools and safety features that are controlled from the dashboard by the driver's voice, much like the virtual personal assistant Siri in Apple's iPhone 4S. And the sales pitch for a sedan and a smartphone have become more alike in recent years. Both boast apps, touchscreens, GPS, voice recognition software, personal assistant capabilities, and the ability to place calls. The evolution of the vehicle marks manufacturers' efforts to help cars keep up with their drivers' constantly-connected lifestyles and their expectations that they can update their Facebook status, check their voice mail, or search the web any time, any place.
Some automakers are going even further. Ford, which recently announced plans to open a research lab in Silicon Valley and has partnered with Microsoft on its in-car Sync software systems, boasts that it is building a "car that cares." Ford's engineers envision a vehicle that would assume more responsibility for the well-being of its passengers and evolve into a caretaker (or, perhaps more accurately, a "cartaker") that can improve the lifestyle of its driver, both inside and outside the car.
"The car that cares is taking shape as an exciting new platform for connectivity, innovation and transformation every bit as much as smartphones or tablets," said Gary Strumolo, Ford's global manager of health and wellness research, while speaking on a panel Wednesday at the Consumer Electronics Show. "We believe this will fundamentally broaden the way we understand automotive safety to mean not so much accident avoidance, but an integrated approach to ensuring the well-being of our customers."
Strumolo said Ford is researching ways to integrate sensors into the seats of its vehicles, so that a car could weigh its driver and track his or her body weight. A diabetic at the wheel could also sync his or her Bluetooth-enabled glucose monitor with the car, which would alert him or her when blood sugar levels drop. Strumolo additionally described a car that would track elevations in a driver's stress levels and react accordingly to cut out distractions, such as sending all calls to voice mail until a driver is more relaxed.
Strumolo said he hopes the new technology will not only improve drivers' health, but also foster a more intimate bond between vehicle and driver.
"The more that you talk to a car that understands you, understands your needs, and maybe even anticipates your needs, the more you'll have an emotional bond with the car," Strumolo said. "You'll think, 'This car is really concerned with my well-being. I feel it understands me, it's helping me. It's essentially a personal assistant."
A Ford engineer at the carmaker's booth echoed the sentiment.
"I think it'll be much more fun to drive cars in the future because the car can be a friend, in a way," research engineer Johannes Kristinsson said.
In another attempt to help drivers outsource their concerns to the car, automakers such as Audi, BMW and Ford are testing mechanisms that would allow vehicles to "talk" with each other on the road. Using vehicle-to-vehicle communication, cars could track other cars' locations and anticipate changes in their positions, potentially reducing the number of collisions.
Dashboards are also giving way to screens powered by software that endows them with the capabilities of a tablet or smartphone. Cadillac's CUE system, which will reportedly be available in cars later this spring, is equipped with a Pandora app and will be able to support other apps in the future, in addition to providing directions, hands-free calling and access to a driver's digital music library.
Mercedes-Benz is expected to likewise bring apps to its vehicles this spring. A Facebook app will be one of the first, offering a simplified version of the social networking site that restricts text input while the car is in motion.
Yet regulators are wary of too many high-tech bells and whistles making their way into cars. The use of smartphones in automobiles has already prompted federal safety investigators to push for a nationwide ban on texting while driving. Approximately 3,092 people died in 2010 in distracted driving-related collisions, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"We can't take a backseat and we won't. While new dashboards or handheld infotainment systems are introduced into commerce, these have too great a potential to create more and more distraction for the driver," said Ron Medford, the deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "As part of our NHTSA driver distraction plan, we are developing safety guidelines for these systems. We have challenged the auto industry and cellphone industry to work collaboratively with us to keep the driver safe and focused on the required task: driving."
Drivers' unfamiliarity with this evolving breed of automobile can present additional obstacles for carmakers, which must coach consumers on how to handle the new vehicles. Switching from AM/FM radio to Pandora is a relatively minor adjustment. But accepting a car that can track your heart rate, monitor weight gains, or anticipate the position of other vehicles will come with growing pains, experts say.
"My biggest concern in 2015 is the gap that opens up between the psychology of the consumer being able to accept something and the technology of automobile being able to provide it," said Leo McCloskey, VP of marketing for Airbiquity, which helps automakers equip cars with software and wireless services. "I think people want many of these features today, but I think the psychology is not where needs to be. The technology is further ahead than the psychology."
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