You might not think that Las Vegas' annual technology extravaganza, CES (Consumer Electronics Show) would be the place to find a bunch of mechanics - but vehicles these days are just as likely to have a laptop used on them as a wrench. In among the curved TVs, new games machines and wearable computing were some remarkable automotive developments.
The Show on the Road
Rear view cameras and parking sensors are commonplace. There are devices to warn you about low tire pressure or high brake wear. Hybrids are everywhere. In general, while they might be more reliable, more economical and safer, there are few ground-breaking advances to look forward to concerning the mechanical elements of your ride. It's how they communicate - and the uses those communications are put to - where you'll find the revolution.
Which will be good news to all those people who have been frustrated by trying to make their phone and car talk to each. However, manufacturers do differ about the best approach.
One argument is that each product is good at particular things and crossovers simply create problems. So if you buy a Chevrolet from 2015 onwards, you won't need to try to plug-in your cell phone - your car will have its own LTE (4G) communication system. What's more, it will have its own app store too. It will deliver vehicle-specific tools like automatically updated GPS and weather reports, plus streamed music or perhaps movies for the kids in the back.
Hyundai, by contrast, are putting more reliance on your phone - turning it into a device that can unlock your car, start it and then dock with a larger and more user-friendly touch screen. “With this technology, Hyundai is able to harness the all-in-one functionality of existing smartphone technology and integrate it into everyday driving in a seamless fashion,” says Allan Rushforth, senior vice president and COO of Hyundai Motor Europe.
Among other motoring-centered developments are GPS / cruise control combinations that can understand gradients and respond accordingly, back off when they approach other vehicles, even "read" signs along the way. There are plans to enable cars to search for parking spaces. It will also be possible to defrost them, or set the air con, without leaving the house.
What are You Looking at?
There is concern in some quarters about the safety hazards that this increased "infotainment" could present. The American Automobile Associated has conducted studies that demonstrate that even hands-free cell phone use can distract drivers from what's happening on the road ahead.
The law is currently pretty confusing too. In some states it's fine to use your cell, in others you have to be over 18 and in others it's banned completely. Even where it is legal there can be complications. In Idaho, for example, there are no restrictions - but use could be cited as a contributory distraction in the event of an accident. If you should get a traffic ticket - even as a secondary offense - there are potential repercussions you need to be aware of before taking the easy option of pleading guilty to what seems a minor infraction.
Where to Next?
Drivers of BMW's i3 electric vehicle can already check whether they have enough battery charge to reach their destination - and search for recharging points. In some cities, they can even check for alternative transport!
Mercedes-Benz is talking about upgrading some vehicle systems remotely. Development chief Thomas Weber has talked about a new era. No longer will automobiles remain as they were when they left the showroom - upgrades to consumer-side systems and those that regulate performance or fuel economy could be sent wirelessly. Owners wouldn't even need to return to the dealership.
Then of course there are fully autonomous vehicles. Audi and BMW have both demonstrated driverless cars, although it's probably Google's that are most famous. They have several different vehicles licensed for use on public highways and so far, in over 300,000 miles, the only accident was when a human operator was at the wheel!
California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada are already allowing these vehicles on the street, Texas looks like following. Getting into your car and simply asking it to take you to your destination was once the province of sci-fi writers - how long now until it becomes a reality?