LAS VEGAS - Yes, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is about gadgets, but in my view if you've seen one iPhone 5 case or docking station you've seen them all. My eyes were on the cars, which were there in surprisingly large numbers. Today's automobile is a rolling mobile test bed for all kinds of high-end electronics.
Many of them showcased infotainment systems, such as the Cadillac Cue center demonstrated by Bosch. These suites have gotten so complicated these days (and so fast moving) that automakers often farm them out. Panasonic works with Chrysler, for instance. And automakers are taking on partners in infotainment — Ford announced not only that was debuting a voice-activated version of the Amazon Cloud Player, but that (like GM) it is opening its app platform to outside developers. Voice activation is necessary because otherwise these complex applications could create distracted drivers.
Electronics can do more than offer up cloud versions of your home MP3 library. I went to the parking lot of the Mandarin Oriental hotel and watched an Audi A7 park itself, then come to the front entrance when summoned by a company executive (playing a harried businessman). Instead of lasers, cameras and other gear on the roof, it had off-the-shelf sensors interacting with others planted along the route. Audi's Annie Lien said that technology like this is about 10 years out.
Lexus also debuted an autonomous car, and this one looked the part, with enough hardware on the roof to equip a Star Trek episode. This special LS600 could drive itself on the highway. Mark Templin, general manager of the Lexus division, said the company is using the automated car as a test bed for a "new era of integrated automatic safety."
What he's talking about is the self-driving features we're likely to see in cars long before any kind of real autonomy. As Scott Winchip of Bosch explained it to me, the near-term systems include congestion assistance (your car will inch ahead in traffic while you read the newspaper) and lane changing assist (you activate the turn signal and the car will make the swap when it's safe to do so). Here now are lane-keeping assistance, adaptive cruise control (which can maintain a safe distance) and drowsiness warnings.
I got seasick in Bosch's autonomous driving simulator, then wandered off to see what else the show had to offer. At the General Motors booth, I saw and sat in the new Chevrolet Spark EV. The unofficial price of $32,000 for this very small EV seems high. That's why people say this car (and others from Fiat, Honda and Toyota) are "compliance" vehicles, designed to meet the letter, if not the spirit, of California's zero emission laws.