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CES Collides With the Auto Industry

This weekend, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas will come to a close. The economy has affected the show, with reports saying attendance was down 25%. Yet, exhibitor space fell only 3% – 2,700 companies had their wares on display this year. And, much of that space was a showcase for new technology, in televisions, radios, in fact anything that could be considered an electronic gadget. This year, more than ever before, many of those gadgets go in your car.


I remember when, as an auto enthusiast in my early twenties, I would scoff when I sat down in a car that didn’t have a tachometer or gauges to measure oil pressure or water temperature. The culture of idiot lights was something I endeavored to stay away from. It wasn’t cool – and it wasn’t what I thought people who cared about cars wanted either.
Today, vehicle interiors almost always have a tach and an assortment of gauges. They have a lot more than that, too. During the past year, I’ve driven vehicles that had more than 50 buttons on the center stack or the dash, all of them related to some form of technology designed to make the driving experience more enjoyable. At the rate things are going, some states may enact laws that require vehicles to be piloted by a driver AND a co-driver.

Ford, GM, Audi, and even Hyundai are rolling out technology that creates a head-on collision between the tech world and the auto industry. While some systems are designed to help drivers stay in their lane or alert while driving, many will likely do the opposite. AT&T is launching in-car entertainment, with 22 channels. Ford is poised to launch in-dash web browsers, and in fact, CEO Alan Mulally says, “we at Ford are thrilled with the idea that our vehicle can be a mobile office. We are beginning to think more like an electronics company.”
Ford’s “mobile” works office will feature a full dashboard computer, including keyboard. Based on the Windows operating system, Ford says the system, initially to be available on F-150 pickup trucks and E-Series Vans, will cost just under $1,200.00, plus a monthly fee for accessing the web. I can hear my neighbor now: “My truck has a virus.”
The auto-related technology featured at CES fit into three categories:
– Tech to make your driving experience safer
– Tech to make your automotive experience more enjoyable
– Tech that assumes you’re an idiot and will buy whatever is offered to you
Here are a few random examples of things you would have run into, while wearing holes in the bottom of your sneakers (the show is huge):
CarChip: This $120 device is essentially a “black box” for your car. It records up to 300 hours of car activity – mileage, speeds, braking, acceleration, etc. The data can be downloaded to a personal computer. The system can also be configured to remind the driver that he/she is driving inappropriately (read, too fast, burnouts, wild braking, etc.). So, mom and dad can now exercise more influence over their teenage drivers.
SYNC: If your kid is driving a Ford, they’re more likely to drive off the side of a cliff while
accessing on-demand traffic, sports, music, or the internal navigation system. The system is voice activated, but in our demos (and past experience), it doesn’t work that well (yet?), so buttons and menus galore are still just a Peter Pan away.
FLIR: In the Navy, Forward Looking Infrared Radar was a big deal 25 years ago. Today, FLIR systems is offering an option on BMW vehicles (initially the six-series) that has a thermal heat sensor, thereby detecting pedestrians in the vehicle’s path. Excellent when speeding in fog or at night with the lights off. F-14 Tomcats used FLIR to navigate below the reach of enemy radar to reach their targets. It was the ultimate E-ticket ride. I can’t imagine enjoying FLIR in my Bimmer unless it allowed me to avoid enemy (read police) radar. Dumb.
CONCEPTS: Our friends at Visteon were actively gathering input on a series of new in-car dash technologies, including some cool concepts developed with 3M. Most did away with the traditional button and knob metaphor and replaced it with “haptic response” surfaces. While at first this might sound like it would be more difficult to find controls, in reality, if Visteon can pull it off, it will make a driver’s job easier, as their fingers will slide from control to control.
What wasn’t easily found at this year’s CES was a lot of technology that merged the personal tech world with the auto tech world. By that, I mean integration of all the technology we walk around with into our vehicles. There were a few exceptions to that rule, including:
Alpine: The automotive entertainment leader introduced a number of new in-dash entertainment systems that no longer include a CD player. The CD is dead. Long live the iPod. As an example, the iXA-W404 has an entirely new visual interface that links your iPod or iPhone with your vehicle – directly. Rather than the now old-hat CD/DVD disc drive, it has an AM/FM tuner and a high-speed USB input for optimal iPod/iPhone connection and pure digital sound from the iPod. Drivers and Passengers also can connect USB memory devices and MTP-based MP3 players via the USB input. Any iPod with a 30-PIN dock connector is compatible with the iXA-W404. That’s cool. Sign me up.
Wilson Electronics: These guys have an interesting product: the iBooster. This device, which is not cheap at $349, will, according to the company, increase the reception and call quality of your iPhone in the car. A new antenna attaches to your vehicle’s roof and a cradle holds your phone, charging it, while you get better performance from your phone. They’re also creating a version for the BlackBerry Curve.
So, was CES a better place to learn about car tech than the L.A. or Detroit Auto Show? Maybe. It certainly was upbeat, not something you’re likely to find in Detroit this January. It’s cold, it’s snowy, and nobody is in a good mood. Wow – sounds like I should grab a FLIR-equipped BMW 650i and see how often I can get the Ped-o-meter to light up while sliding by Cobo at 120mph. Wanna join me?

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