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.

By J.D. Sartain
Tue, February 11, 2014

CIO — 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.

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