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What's next for cars at CES?

Connected cars are still making news here, but automakers are looking ahead

As exciting as CES has become in the auto industry, it’s also become a little predictable. The same two topics — autonomous driving and the connected car — have been pervasive here for well over half a decade, and they’re showing no signs of going anywhere. It’s not that there isn’t still plenty of news to be made in those categories, but the news has become incremental. Cars are now expected to have touchscreens and internet connections. Pretty much every automaker has proven at one time or another that it can make a car drive on its own.

It raises the question, what’s next? When every car has Android Auto and CarPlay compatibility, a configurable instrument cluster, and a self-driving mode, what will be the new hot automotive topic in the first week of every January?

I posed the question to Don Butler, the ex-GM exec now responsible for Ford’s connected car program. "There’s going to be a mass of data that becomes available once you’ve got this computing power and once you’ve got this connection," he says. "Consumers need to trust that that data is going to be handled in a responsible way."

In fewer words, Butler is suggesting that automotive privacy and security is going to become a dominant conversation at this show in the coming years. Modern cars are rolling boxes of data, rife with computers and the connections to ferry information in and out. Of course, privacy has become a huge deal elsewhere in recent years — smartphones, massive hacks, PRISM — so connected cars can’t be far behind.

Privacy is boring, though. Tremendously important, yes, but ultimately boring. The substance that sustains CES’s life force is sizzle. What’s the next sizzle for cars? CES 2015 gives us an early, tantalizing glimpse at two possibilities.

Two automakers here, BMW and Volkswagen, are demonstrating fully functional gesture-control systems. They sound gimmicky, but after seeing them in action, I’m convinced that they’re the real deal: they’re less finicky than voice recognition, and unlike a touchscreen, they don’t require that the driver divert a single moment of their attention. A wave of the hand requires a lower cognitive load than hunting for an "end call" button. And these systems aren’t merely concepts — BMW has committed to rolling out gesture support in production cars within a year or two.

I'm convinced that gesture control is the real deal

Next, look for car sharing to become a dominant topic. Zipcar already does this well, but automakers want in: Ford made a long series of announcements about pilot programs that it’s conducting around the world, including several specifically focused on car and ride sharing. It seems counterintuitive for car companies to take an interest in it — more sharing of cars would suggest fewer cars being sold, which is inherently bad for business. Butler disagrees. "The way we look at it, we could either have the future thrust upon us, or we could go forward and boldly try to form the future in a way that makes sense, both for us as well as our customers, as well as the greater good of the world," he says. "Those things are going to be coming, right? And we can kind of pretend to ignore it and just say, ‘no no no, I’m going to keep selling vehicles the way I do, and I just hope I can hold on.’ No, we want to be a part of that solution going forward." A number of other automakers are engaged in car sharing programs around the world, including Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

Make no mistake — this week, giant in-dash displays and self-driving cars are still as newsy as ever. But soon, they won’t be, and car companies seem to know what they’re going to be talking about next. CES is a car show now, after all.

The cars of CES 2015

  1. How to get married with Android Auto

    Andrew Brenner, product manager for Android Auto at Google, sounds like he was basically born for the job: he got it, he says, because he'd hacked the dashboard of his own car with a Nexus 7. Now, he's picking me up in a Hyundai Sonata equipped with a near-production build of his software. We're going to get married.

  2. Nvidia's plan for the car isn't as crazy as it sounds

    Nvidia isn’t selling LED-embroidered, heatpipe-cooled GPUs; it’s pitching an all-encompassing vision of the future connected car. It doesn’t seem to make sense — and in its full, blooming, overreaching glory, it really doesn’t — but a more tempered, less ambitious version of the plan announced by Nvidia at CES actually makes perfectly good sense.

  3. Wearing LG's webOS smartwatch made me happy

    The watch has a circular app navigation menu, a slick and circular calendar app, and a quick settings menu that's also best viewed on a round screen. Audi's participation in this timepiece is limited to a branded watch face and an app that unlocks the car door via NFC.

  4. Ford's latest experiments could make parking your car suck a lot less

    Ford is trying something different, displaying some interesting incremental improvements for the present. It just announced a service that uses shared data from cars across the city to help others find open parking spots. That will partner well with two other experimental apps.

  5. Ford is testing ways to help you not buy a car

    On stage at his CES keynote, Ford CEO Mark Fields and product development VP Raj Nair announced that the company is testing ride-sharing systems in London, New York, Germany, and India — in other words, systems that would help you not buy a Ford.

  6. BMWs of the future will have Samsung tablets and gesture control

    BMW showed off a couple near-future technologies that'll be available on cars in the next few years. The first doesn't really sound futuristic at all — it's just a generic Samsung tablet, but the magic is in how tightly BMW's managed to integrate it with the car's systems. The "Touch Command" system includes the small Android tablet and a dock in the rear seat, allowing rear passengers to change climate settings, switch radio stations, adjust their seats, and more — in other words, it's basically a portable iDrive controller for when you're getting chauffeured around.

  7. The Mercedes-Benz F 015: this is what tomorrow's self-driving cars look like

    The F 015 Luxury in Motion — yes, "Luxury in Motion" is part of the car's name — is basically a sleek pod with a huge passenger compartment, a fortuitous side effect of an imagined future where we spend most of our times chilling out in cars while they drive us around all by themselves. Mercedes actually calls the cabin "lounge-like," thanks to four rotating seats that can face each other.

  8. Volkswagen's Golf R Touch is a next-generation pocket rocket

    High-performance hatches like the GTI and Golf R are a big part of Volkswagen's bread and butter, but they've never really been known as bastions of high technology. That might be changing today with the introduction of the Golf R Touch at CES, a concept that pushes the dashboard to the bleeding edge.

  9. I tried to crash a BMW, but it parked itself instead

    First, I got a glimpse of a collision avoidance system using an array of fairly well-concealed external sensors on one of the i3s. BMW set up a bunch of big, soft blocks dressed to look like walls and other hazards — it was a little Super Mario-esque, come to think of it — and told me to punch the gas in their direction. That's a tough command to process, and it took me a second to work up the courage.

  10. Nvidia's Tegra X1 infotainment system is actually rather awesome

    Nvidia's demo infotainment system has five main areas: one each for music and in-car controls, one for smartphone integration via things like Android Auto, one for viewing feeds from cameras around the car, and a final one for navigation. Nothing's incredibly fancy about this interface, but the 3D navigation is presented in a really cool, ghostly look, and is navigable via the typical touchscreen gestures.

  11. This is the 2016 Chevrolet Volt

    The redesigned Volt is a huge deal for General Motors: it's the first rethinking of the company's "extended-range electric" drivetrain since the debut of the original Volt in concept form in 2007. (Former GM CEO Rick Wagoner himself rolled onto stage in a Volt at a CES keynote in 2008.)

  12. Parrot's new dashboard wants to turn your old clunker into a smartcar

    This unit is meant to upgrade a dumb car into a smart one, a fresh take on the AsteroidParrot has been selling for years. The company says the new system is compatible with 90 percent of the cars on the road today, anything that can fit a double DIN sized CD player.

  13. This year, your car will start yelling at you for driving poorly

    General Motors' OnStar division is announcing that it's launching a "driver assessment" program in cars that will track how well drivers drive — hard braking, hard acceleration, and so on — and offer detailed feedback after collecting 90 days' worth of data. Afterward, they'll have the option of forwarding the data on to Progressive as part of its Snapshot insurance discount program, where you can get discounted insurance rates for driving well.

  14. Hyundai will let you start your car with an Android Wear watch

    The app gives drivers the ability to access remote vehicle operations right from their wrists, such as starting and stopping the engine, locking and unlocking the doors, and activating safety features like flashing the headlights or honking the horn. Users will be able to locate their car or call roadside assistance from the app as well.