Smart Cars Are Getting Smarter, But the Ride Isn't Perfect

The cars of tomorrow will listen, talk, entertain, protect, get energy from the sun and even drive themselves. Not all carmakers plan to take the same road, though, and some face more potholes than other.

Consumer and exhibitor reviews of Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2014 agree that "smart cars" top the list of best new technology on display.

You can think of a smart car as an extremely enlarged version of a smartphone, since they actually share similar operating systems and technologies:

  • An intelligent onboard system with personal communications (phone calls, email and voice mail).
  • Peripheral communications with GPS, toll booths, parking lots, road closures, traffic behavior, emergency services and so on.
  • Multimedia entertainment options (Internet, movies, games, music and news).
  • A host of safety and diagnostic tools.

"Locating a parking space is just the beginning," says Richard Brown, senior analyst at Verdict. "Connected cars will have software that can park the vehicle for you — taking control of the acceleration, braking and steering, and also judge whether the vehicle will actually fit the space that's available."

In addition, Brown says, most manufacturers plan to install complex, anti-collision software into all vehicles, not just premium models. Such software will nudge straying cars back into the proper lane, recognize brake lights through fog and other bad weather, monitor blind spots and watch for signs of fatigue in a driver's eye movements and facial muscles.

Upcoming connected vehicles will go even further, with features such as customizable consoles, solar power and automated driving. The first driverless, "autonomous" vehicle, the Induct Technology Navia, looks like an oversized golf cart but is actually a mini shuttle bus. Google, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, BMW and Volvo all have autonomous vehicles on the drawing board or, at least, on the mind.

[ Related: The First Driverless Cars Will Actually be a Bunch of Trucks ]

Ford, meanwhile, showcased its C-MAX Solar Energi concept car at CES 2014, touting it as the first and best option for renewable energy transportation.

Based on Ford's C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid, this solar version — a solar plug-in hybrid crossover — places 16 square feet of photovoltaic panels into the roof. Even after partnering with the Georgia Institute of Technology to develop a magnifying lens to concentrate and boost solar collection, however, it still takes seven hours of sunlight to move the car 21 miles before the hybrid engine must take over. It's not exactly ready for prime time, but it's a giant leap for green machines.

Android, Nvidia Behind Most In-car Tech

The technology begins with Google's mobile OS Android and Nvidia's Tegra K1 superchip, which runs a variety of auto apps. The Tegra K1 incorporates a quad-core CPU and a 192-core GPU that uses Nvidia's Kepler architecture, which is the foundation for its powerful GPUs.

[ Analysis: Android vs. iOS War Coming to a Car Near You in 2014 ]

This partnership inspired the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA), a movement to install a common mobile platform across smart cars. Audi, General Motors, Honda, and Hyundai join Google and Nvidia in the OAA.

Audi Corporate Communications Manager Bradley Stertz says participating in OAA is a "natural fit" in line with the vision of connecting cars to the surrounding environment. Audi has a "longstanding and valued working relationship with Google," he says, noting that Audi connect embedded Wi-Fi connectivity is the first in-car system in the world to use features such as Google Earth, Google Local Voice Search and Google Street View.

Technical Blunders, Costs, Complexities Could Stall Smart Car Sales

Not all smart cars are created equal. MyFord Touch, also known as MyLincoln Touch — the onboard communications and entertainment system developed by Microsoft and Ford — has received failing reliability ratings.

Meanwhile, Renault blames bugs in its R-Link touchscreen entertainment and navigation panel for dwindling interest in its Zoe electric car. (Although Renault's decision to charge Zoe owners monthly fees to rent the battery that runs the car, along with Renault's ability to log all vehicle activity and send a shutdown signal to the car, might also have something to do with Zoe's diminished reputation.)

[ Commentary: How (and Why) Your Car is Spying on You ]

Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Toyota and others are developing smart cars — but not everyone is on board. In fact, many CES guests and participants expressed concerns about higher sticker prices, as well as maintenance and repair costs. As one example, GM and Chevrolet smart car ignition keys cost $350. (We've come a long way from $2 hardware store key copies.)

Meanwhile, your local, independent mechanic can no longer work on your custom, proprietary, smart vehicle, as each system is unique and tied directly to the manufacturer. No more $50 oil changes or $100 windshields. Soon you'll pay whatever the manufacturer demands — for parts and service — because no one else will be able to repair your car.

Brown, though, isn't worried. As was the case with the computers and smartphones, purchase prices for smart cars will drop as adoption increase. Those $350 keys will become obsolete, too, he says, to be replaced by either sensors linked to mobile phone or fingerprint recognition systems.

Independent mechanics aren't doomed, either. Most will adapt, Brown says, with previously independents mechanics affiliating with a manufacturer network to gain access to technology.

"A lot of what's going on is related to software. Unlocking performance can be a simple case of an engine remap, using nothing more than a software update administered by plugging in a laptop," he says. "Modern cars are more like rolling computers than mechanical objects, so more repairs [will] amount to little more than updating the software."

Audi's Stertz says enhancing the "smooth exchange of data and functionality between cars and Android devices" is the first step, as it will let Android app developers add car modes to safely present information to drivers.

Specific use cases for this automotive-grade Android OS are to be determined, Stertz says, in part because OAA launched in January, but some functions of the Android platform could appear as early as this year.

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