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Automakers in the Driver's Seat as Car Tech Dominates CES

Internet-connected, autonomous cars are fast becoming realities, but there are still plenty of roadblocks ahead.

Bonnie Cha

If CES is any indication of what the auto industry has in store for us, the cars of the not-too-distant future look pretty amazing.

They will be sensor-filled, intelligent and autonomous. They’ll be more fuel-efficient, have greater range per charge, or both. And they’ll offer wireless service and dashboard-friendly versions of our favorite mobile operating systems, so that we’ll always be connected.

Except, well, not so fast. There are still some roadblocks to these concepts becoming realities, both on the technical end and on the regulatory side. And, as with many of the wares shown off each year in Las Vegas, many are just that: Concepts. Others are still years away from coming to market.

Over the past few years, the auto industry has been increasing its presence at the International CES (which stands for “Consumer Electronics Show”). At least 10 automakers were in attendance this year, including Ford, GM, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota; this was one more automaker than last year’s show and up two from the year prior.

 Volkswagen showed off a concept Golf R Touch with a gesture-controlled in-dash system and autonomous parking technology.
Volkswagen showed off a concept Golf R Touch with a gesture-controlled in-dash system and autonomous parking technology.
Bonnie Cha

This growth has happened regardless of the fact that the auto industry’s own massive trade show, the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, usually kicks off a week later. As one automaker told Re/code, being at CES has become more important because it gives the company the chance to mingle with not only equipment manufacturers and suppliers, but also tech behemoths like Google.

This year, the announcements and demos from carmakers were arguably the most significant at the show.

In the area of alternative fuel vehicles, Toyota continued its push for the development of hydrogen fuel cell cars by offering rival automakers access to thousands of its fuel-cell-related patents for free. (Tesla pulled a similar move in June to spur the growth and adoption of electric vehicles.)

Unlike electric vehicles which draw power from rechargeable batteries, fuel cell cars mix hydrogen gas stored in onboard tanks with oxygen from the atmosphere to produce electricity to power the car’s engine. The advantages here are that it offers a longer range than electric vehicles (around 300 miles to 400 miles versus 100) and charges within minutes rather than hours.

 Toyota Mirai
Toyota Mirai
Bonnie Cha

But one of the big challenges facing the technology is the lack of fueling infrastructure. Currently, there are only about a dozen hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S., which is part of the reason why Toyota is opening up its patents.

In total, Toyota is giving companies royalty-free use of all 5,680 of its fuel cell patents through 2020. The only thing Toyota is asking for in return is that other manufacturers share their related patents in a similar fashion, though it’s not a requirement.

Toyota will release its first hydrogen-powered car, the Mirai, in the U.S. this October with a starting price of around $57,500. Honda and Hyundai are also producing fuel cell vehicles.

The “connected” car was also a huge theme at CES, though this term does cover a broad range of technological features. A connected car could be one that runs apps or lets you pair your smartphone with your dashboard via Bluetooth, or one that integrates Google’s Android Auto OS or Apple’s CarPlay OS into a car’s in-dash system. Audi, Hyundai, GM and Volkswagen were among the companies showing off such integrations.

At the BMW tent, workers wearing Moto 360 smartwatches were demonstrating how a driver can open and lock the car door as he’s approaching, with a simple shake of the wrist.

The connected car can also refer to a vehicle that has built-in wireless technology, offering the ability to pull down new data or make a phone call much in the same way you would using a smartphone. Audi and GM, for example, are both working with AT&T to offer LTE 4G wireless service in vehicles.

Lauren Goode

Yet, for all the talk of connectedness, there is still some division over technologies, and consumer safety and privacy.

On the technology side, carmakers that are working with AT&T for LTE service are working only with AT&T right now; so if you’re using another wireless service for your cellphone, your options are to switch carriers, use two different carriers, or not utilize the in-car wireless service at all.

This is partly a technical issue, the automakers say, since AT&T uses GSM technology that is also widely available in Europe. Verizon, on the other hand, operates on a different frequency band.

Advocates for auto and highway safety often say that this kind of “connectedness” leads to a much bigger issue: Distractedness.

And with many of these connected solutions collecting personal data, there is concern over the potential abuse of private data. The Federal Trade Commission has expressed its concerns over the security risks, and are encouraging tech companies to take some safeguards when building these products.

Plenty of autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles made their way to the show this year as well. A handful of lucky journalists (we were not in this bunch) were actually driven more than 560 miles from Palo Alto, Calif., to Las Vegas in a “piloted” Audi A7. Audi is also developing technology around machine learning, in which a semi-autonomous vehicle absorbs and interprets data about its surroundings and gets “smarter” over time.

And Mercedes-Benz showed off an insane self-driving car concept called the F 015 Luxury in Motion. Powered by hydrogen fuel cell technology, this futuristic pod on four wheels can chauffeur you around using a system of multiple sensors, 3-D cameras and digital maps to autonomously navigate the roads. The inside cabin looks more like a swanky lounge with swiveling seats so people can face each other and multiple touchscreens that provide access to controls and entertainment features.

This autonomous Audi drove a group of journalists more than 560 miles from Palo Alto, Calif., to Las Vegas for CES this week. All arrived unscathed.
This autonomous Audi drove a group of journalists more than 560 miles from Palo Alto, Calif., to Las Vegas for CES this week. All arrived unscathed.

But those working on autonomous vehicles face plenty of hurdles, including regulatory issues. Currently, only a handful of states (California, Nevada, Michigan, Florida) and the District of Columbia have passed legislation permitting autonomous cars.

“We literally had to stop at the state line and switch the license plate from California to Nevada,” said Brad Stertz, Audi’s corporate communications manager, meaning that autonomous driving allowances are, right now, on a state-by-state basis, and require special plates for each location.

“No consumer is going to want to do that, and nobody wants to build a car for each of the 50 states,” Stertz said.

Then there are the technical challenges, mainly fine-tuning the radars, sensors and data algorithms to be able to drive steadily and safely at high speeds; or so that the autonomous car can accurately “see” potholes, fallen trees and, of course, humans.

Clearly, there are many challenges to overcome. Still, the road ahead for car tech looks to be an exciting one.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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