With CES At Hand, Cars Drive Tech

Call 2016 the year of personal mobility. Automakers started injecting that catchphrase into the auto conversation a few years back, when BMW, Ford and others decided to go all-in on the great urban migration and how it is redefining driving around the world. 

Auto companies will reveal mobility tech at the Consumer Electronics Show on Jan. 6, no doubt. GM's CEO Mary Barra will give a keynote, as will Volkswagen's chairman Herbert Diess. Both will talk the "m" word, with Volkswagen unveiling a new electric-car concept.  

A decade or so ago, there was novelty in automakers appearing at CES. Not long ago, car companies were there to play mannequin to after-market audio companies. The auto business is feeling more like the consumer electronics sector, though, and CES event organizers said that is reflected in show floor real estate: there will be a 25% growth in show floor space for autos versus last year, with more than 100 automotive tech companies showing driverless and in-car goodies across more than 200,000 net square feet of exhibit space. Nine automakers will be there, including, besides the above-mentioned, Audi, BMW, FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles), Ford, Hyundai, Mercedes, and Toyota.  

A recent study from J.D. Power shows that a lot of consumers are neither interested in, nor trusting of, some of new auto technology, such as self-parking, but that will change. The analysts at Cox's Autotrader division see several technologies getting big interest this year, many like, advanced backup cameras, improvements on technology that has been around for years. New systems do things like show a top-down view from all sides of the car. 

Some of Autotrader's predictions on what will be hot in auto tech this coming year: how about augmented-reality owner's manuals, where you can point your smartphone or tablet at something in your car, such as a control, and up pops videos and interactive guides on how to use it. Automatic steering? That’s a brick in the autonomous car edifice, involving things like  lane-keep assist and short-duration steering. And LED technology has pretty much replaced bulbs, so consumers will adopt that whether they want to or not. Same with smart phone integration, which, in the best case, essentially migrates the phone screen to the head unit. With Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, so much for automakers' differentiating themselves on their own unique interfaces when an iPhone wants that experience on the console screen.

Hybrid and electric vehicles have also accelerated the possibilities around remote function through phone apps. Autotrader points out that the possibilities go beyond checking fuel levels: locating your car, roadside assistance, and vehicle health status, starting your car from afar, and pre-loading navigation are already old hat. 

Consumers' interest in self parking technology is tepid, so far, but as those systems get more sophisticated, and once they become low-cost options, there is little doubt that they will become an expected feature because of the power of new technology to change behavior by effacing driver skill. When rear cameras first came out, it seemed like an extravagance. Now, I think it's likely that people with back-up cameras have lost their ability and confidence when it comes to parallel parking "blind." I know I have. Is it unreasonable to expect that the same will happen with self-parking technology that completely removes the driver from that process.

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