CES isn't a car show, and the huge presence of major manufacturers might seem a bit out of place. But, as car dorks always lament, cars these days are less about how well they drive and more about how many gadgets they have. Cars, at least for the CES market, are just another appliance to slap a touchscreen in.
The Detroit Auto Show is in a couple weeks, and that's where bigger car trends and announcements will come. But at CES, a couple trends about the future of the auto business were clear. First, manufacturers are scrambling to line up whatever tech partnerships they can. Second, just about everyone has given up on trying to develop their own entertainment systems–something auto makers have not been good at–and instead are adding connectivity to run all your music and apps straight off your smartphone.
So, to explain that headline: Combine Android and iOS controlling entertainment and navigation with the rapid approach of self-driving cars and I'm just going to go ahead an predict that one day you're going to map a route to your phone (or snag an address out of a text), plug the phone into your car, and have it drive you wherever.
I'm going to start off with Hyundai because the Korean manufacturer actually brought ideas to the show. This Genesis Blue2 concept was a standout.
It also showcased Hyundai's Bluelink technology, which incorporates Android or iOS to run just about all of the car's infotainment systems while also being cloud connected.
But the most striking thing from Hyundai was its Interactive Connectivity concept, which was basically advanced nav software that appeared to be able to pull directions from conversations on your smartphone, map a route, and then also suggest stops on your route. Are you hungry? Well, it'll find a Subway for you, and has NFC built in so you can order and pay while driving.
This feels like a very plausible future, in which your car is just another dock for your smartphone and does everything you'd expect it to.
Ford had probably the biggest presence at the show, and its C-Max compact was apparently the official car of CES, probably because it's an inexpensive, highly-connected ride.
Remember those partnerships I mentioned? Ford, trying to figure out a way to make its rip-snortin' GT 500 into the show, was talking up a deal it's made with Pandora. The car guy in me has to sigh; isn't the exhaust note enough?
Ford's Sync, which made waves by being one of the earliest and best versions of an automotive Siri, is starting to get a bit dated, and I'd expect to see something fresh in Detroit.
Ford also signaled a big push towards electric vehicles, with a large part of their booth dedicated to its developing work to set up drivers with intelligent charging services.
With that in mind, Ford was showing off its Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid. Plug-in hybrids seem to be the current stop-gap before full-blown EVs become more popular, which is going to require better batteries and a bigger carge network.
And look what we have here: A giant touchscreen connected to your phone.
Chevy had an EV-themed booth, with its Spark EV coming out soon. (I discussed previously how big of a deal it is that GE has signed on to monetize Spark charging.)
Chevy also had its Volt next to a spinning mini wind turbine. Subtle. I was actually surprised this year because the whole green angle wasn't being hyped too hard.
Chrysler's infotainment-connect system is called uconnect (lowercase "u," please) and partnered up with Nokia, oddly enough.
Hyundai's system appeared the most polished, but I'm surprised to say Chrysler seemed close.
Here's a pickup dashboard in 2013. A ridiculous amount of buttons and a massive touchscreen mirroring your phone.
Audi had a wild booth that looked like the set of a photo shoot in a movie or something. Only one thing mattered to me there, which was gawking at Audi's ridiculous R18 e-tron quattro hybrid diesel race car.
It looks like a spaceship, and sounds like one too.
Lots of complicated electronics, but no smartphone hookup. Bummer.
The bigger splash from Audi at the show was the announcement that it had received the first Nevada license for an autonomous car. Folks, I wasn't kidding about self-driving cars.
Toyota had a small presence at CES, with only a single Lexus present. But what a Lexus it was. The company showed off its safety technology/autonomous driving research vehicle, which is basically a Lexus LS luxo-barge equipped with a ridiculous array of cameras, radar systems, and various other sensors.
Lexus was showing it off as safety gear–you know, smart cruise control, collision avoidance, lane drift warning sensors and all that–but that belies the fact that Toyota is serious about developing a self-driving car.
(Before I go on, I just realized I never spent time fiddling around with Tesla, but you can see my thoughts on the Model S sedan here. And damn, it's good looking in person.)
CES was certainly a very brief pitstop for auto manufacturers between the LA and Detroit auto shows, but the main takeaway is simple: In the near term, automakers have finally gotten smart enough to realize that Apple and Google have spent countless millions on R&D of solid smartphone systems, which are vastly superior to whatever an automaker is going to come up with. Expect cars infotainment systems to basically be second screens for smartphones in the near future. More broadly, it looks all but assured that we'll have self-driving cars in the fairly near future. The only really huge hurdle that remains is whether or not consumers are willing to give up the wheel.