Cars haven't traditionally been considered part of the consumer electronics industry. But as you can see at this week's Consumer Electronics Show, that's changing. Car companies have flocked to Las Vegas to announce more powerful dashboard computers, better integration with smartphones, and more sophisticated self-driving capabilities.
As computers become more deeply woven into every aspect of our lives, cars are becoming just another gadget — albeit the biggest and most expensive one you'll ever own.
Automakers are building fancier dashboard computers
Our cars have had computers in them for decades. Your car probably has built-in computers that optimize fuel consumption and manage features like airbags and antilock brakes. These computers are what engineers call embedded computers — devices without any type of user interface (although you can talk to them with third-party smartphone apps).
A more recent development has been computers with touchscreen user interfaces. These are generally mounted in the center console and support functions such as navigation and playing music. At CES, a number of car companies announced improvements to these dashboard computer systems.
BMW has been working on improving iDrive, the touchscreen computing platform that controls settings in recent BMW vehicles. At CES, the company showed off a prototype of a camera mounted in the car's roof that will allow BMW vehicles to pick up drivers' gestures and convert those into commands like turning up the volume or answering a call. The firm also showed off a custom Android tablet that could be integrated into the seat back of future BMW vehicles.
Chevrolet announced that its 2015 vehicles will come with advanced LTE wireless capabilities and a proprietary app store called the App Shop. That will give the vehicles advanced wireless capabilities and the ability to install new software, but it will also have a downside: your car will need a separate data plan. Chevy says it's partnering with AT&T to provide connectivity, but it hasn't gotten into specifics about what plans will be available and how much they'll cost.
Smartphones are taking over
Apple and Google have a different vision for the future of in-car computing: they want their smartphone platforms to totally replace these proprietary systems.
Last year, Google and Apple each introduced new platforms, called Android Auto and CarPlay, respectively. The key idea is to outsource the brains of that in-dash touchscreen to your smartphone. That means you get the same polished interface that powers iPhones and Android smartphones, and these capabilities will improve as smartphones get more powerful.
There haven't been a lot of big announcements from carmakers about these platforms at CES, but that's because almost all of the major car companies pledged support last year. An exception was Volkswagen, which skipped Apple's CarPlay announcement last year but announced Monday that it would support both standards. Other automakers such as Hyundai are showing off their support for the standards.
There's every indication carmakers are adopting these platforms grudgingly. They recognize that they'll be at a competitive disadvantage if they don't provide seamless integration with the two dominant smartphone platforms. But they'd much rather consumers use proprietary systems like BMW's iDrive, which give the car companies more control over the user experience.
If you're excited about CarPlay and Android Auto but don't want to buy a new car, you're in luck. At CES multiple vendors have announced aftermarket devices that support the standard. Parrot, for example, is offering a touchscreen unit that supports both Android and iOS devices and will fit in most cars currently on the roads. Pioneer is also offering a range of car stereo systems with support for both platforms.
Self-driving technology is closer than you think
People usually think about self-driving cars as a technology that's still many years in the future. And fully self-driving vehicles might be a ways off. But car companies are already hard at work on cars with partial self-driving capabilities that can be brought to the market more quickly.
In a sense, the gradual roll-out of self-driving cars has already started. You can already buy cars that can park themselves and help you avoid collisions. More advanced technology will become commercially available in the next few years.
For example, BMW is demoing a prototype of a sophisticated collision prevention system at CES, and the Verge's Chris Zeigler got a test drive. BMW representatives encouraged Zeigler to try his hardest to crash the car, but it wouldn't cooperate. If he tried to speed toward a wall, the car would detect the obstacle and come to a smooth stop just before he hit it. If Zeigler tried to take a corner too sharply, the car managed to come to a halt before side-swiping the obstacle and scraping up the vehicle. The car also had a valet function that will park it without anyone inside. BMW estimates the technology will be commercially available in five to eight years.
Meanwhile, Audi announced that it drove an A7 from San Francisco to Las Vegas using a prototype of "Piloted Driving," a technology that falls somewhere between cruise control and full self-driving. When Piloted Driving mode is turned on, the A7 can handle most freeway driving situations without human intervention, but it alerts the driver to take over when it gets to city streets. Audi describes the technology as "production ready," but it hasn't announced a specific release date.
Perhaps the most optimistic take on self-driving cars came from Ford CEO Mark Fields, who predicted that someone will introduce a fully self-driving car in the next five years. Fields said that Ford probably wouldn't be the first company to introduce the technology, in part because the technology will be too expensive for Ford's mainstream customer base. But it's now widely accepted in the auto industry that self-driving cars are coming. The only question is how long it will take.