CES Preview: Self-Driving Cars, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto Integration to Debut

A self-driving BMW i3 searches for a parking space.
Courtesy of BMW

Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi are among the auto manufacturers showing off their latest tech innovations at the annual consumer electronics show in Las Vegas opening Jan. 6

Confirming the relentless convergence of cars and technology, a record 10 auto manufacturers will be on hand at the 2015 International CES show in Las Vegas next week. Mercedes-Benz chief Dieter Zetsche and Ford CEO Mark Fields are scheduled to deliver two of the show's five keynote addresses. 

What compelled Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, GM, Hyundai, Mazda, Toyota and Volkswagen to ship hundreds of cars to Las Vegas, construct elaborate sets and field flashy presentations at a convention dedicated to consumer and entertainment technologies — only a week prior to the Detroit Auto Show, the industry’s most important annual trade event?

The answer lies in the fact that car buyers — particularly millennials — are no longer as susceptible to the industry’s traditional marketing tropes of styling, horsepower and handling. Instead, they see the car as an extension of their digital lives, and increasingly demand that it mesh seamlessly with their smart phones, tablets and other personal tech. A Compass Intelligence survey of smart phone-owning drivers released in December concluded that "the primary needs and wants out of technology ... is the enhancement of the driving experience."

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The Consumer Electronics Association predicts that sales of factory-installed technologies in cars will reach $11 billion in 2015 as drivers embrace 4G LTE connectivity, which turns a car into a rolling WiFi hotspot, as well as adaptive cruise control, parking assist and collision avoidance and other systems that enhance safety and offer a preview of self-driving cars, which will become increasingly commonplace in the next 10 years.

Among the news expected at the show:

During a keynote devoted to autonomous vehicle technology, Mercedes' Zetsche is expected to unveil an egg-shaped self-driving concept car that it teased earlier this week on Facebook. Mercedes has been deep in development of autonomous cars for years. Its Intelligent Drive system, which debuted on the 2014 S-Class and incorporates 3D stereoscopic cameras, radars and other sensors that allow the car to automatically brake for obstacles, stay in its lane and drive itself in traffic jams, is the most advanced available today. Look for enhancements to the system to debut on the concept car — which will probably drive itself onstage, with Zetsche emerging from the rear passenger's seat, if his performance with the S-Class at the Frankfurt Auto Show is any indication.

BMW also offers semi-autonomous technology in current production models — camera — and radar-based systems warn the driver of impending hazards and can automatically brake the car to a standstill if necessary. At CES, BMW will demonstrate a specially equipped i3 that drops its driver at the entrance to a parking garage, navigates to an open space, parks and locks itself, then repeats the process in reverse when the driver remotely summons the car with a smart watch. BMW will also unveil a concept car showcasing its Laserlight headlights that debuted on the i8 plug-in hybrid supercar earlier this year. The lights are among the first to use laser technology that increases the range to 600 meters — or more than six football fields.

Toyota will demonstrate its faith in the viability of zero-emission fuel cell vehicles, which combine hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity to power a car, with the North American unveiling of its FCV, which will enter production in 2015 and be sold primarily in California, where a skeleton network of hydrogen fueling stations exists with 40 more scheduled to open by 2016. The advantage of fuel cell technology over plug-in electric cars such as the Tesla Model S is that hydrogen refueling takes only three to five minutes, whereas recharging on electric car's batteries can anywhere from 30 minutes to hours. But the scant infrastructure of fueling stations outside California and the increasing popularity of pure electric and plug-in hybrid cars — BMW, Audi and Mercedes are heavily invested in plug-in electric technology — will challenge wide-scale adoption of fuel cell cars, experts say.

Expect to see Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto debut in 2015 production cars. Each allows a driver to plug a smart phone running Apple's iOS or Google's Android operating systems into a car's USB port and control it from the infotainment touch screen. Although consumers are eager to adopt CarPlay and Android Auto, car manufacturers are less than thrilled to share space on their proprietary infotainment systems out of concern that Google and Apple could gain access to the trove of data about a car owner's location, purchases and other personal information. The duopoly theoretically compels manufacturers to choose one system or the other — Apple has signed up Mercedes, Volvo, Jaguar and BMW — but the reality will probably more closely resemble the compromise Hyundai will unveil at CES: an infotainment unit that integrates both the Apple and Android systems.

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