Connected Cars Are Dominating CES This Week

The annual tech show is all about the best and brightest of soon-to-be-necesary tech—and right now, a lot of that tech lives on four wheels.

Can you imagine leaving your car behind to find its own parking space? How about hopping into a driver’s seat of your nice new Mercedes—that faces backward? Think of it less as a driving space, Mercedes urges, and more as a “retreating space”—a space to revel in the fact that you don’t have to be driving at all. Sound like a dream? The annual Consumer Electronics Show (or CES for the hip) is a reality, and it’s happening as we type in Las Vegas. Early returns look promising for the state of the connected car in 2015.

Auto Brands Jump In

A big part of what’s cool about connected cars dominating CES is that it’s not just tech companies leading the conversation—instead, brands including Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, and Toyota are putting forth their best new ideas for a connected, soon-to-be-self-driving car. Of course, CES is all about concepts, or high-level ideas that may never reach market. But the fact that so many car brands are showing off at CES does mean that consumers are thinking more about how to get their cars to work for them.

Cars already have some pretty impressive self-driving capabilties: Rear cameras for reversing, the ability to alert you if you’ve drifted out of a lane or brake for you, even the ability to adapt to the car ahead of you’s speed on the highway. This Verge writer tried as hard as he could to crash a BMW—but could not, thanks to its anti-collision technology. And that’s another possibility for the future of connected car tech: Ford’s CEO said at CES this week that he expects self-driving cars to be on the road within half a decade, but he also said that Ford won’t be the company to do it. He wants, instead, to focus on driving-assisting technologies. According to the Consumer Electronics Assocation, more than $11.3 billion in factory-installed technologies have popped up in cars this year alone—a sizeable market for Ford to explore.

“You can go into a dealership and get a Ford Focus that can park itself right now,” Raj Nair, Ford’s product development chief, told Auto News of the automaker’s compact car that starts at $16,810. “If you want to go to the full extreme—full autonomy—literally a vehicle that has no steering wheel and has no pedals, that’s a tremendous technical challenge, but one that we believe that in the next five years will be possible.” Just how does that work, exaclty? For BMW, it goes like this: “Four laser systems scan 360 degrees around the car to find a space, locking itself closed once it has parked itself. Drivers summon the car via a smart watch for pickup, and the i3 meets the driver at the entrance of the parking garage, ready to go,” The LA Times explains.

Other New CES Car Tech

According to CBS News, both BMW and Volkswagen are working on gesture recognition, “so drivers can adjust the volume of the stereo, or take and dismiss phone calls with simple waves of the hand.” Volvo, meanwhile, is developing safety technology to help alert cars to the possibility of a collision with cyclists—and vice versa. “Coordinating GPS locations from the car and the biker’s smartphone in the cloud, an algorithm determines the potential for an accident and alerts the driver via head’s up display on the windshield and warns the biker by flashing LEDs and enabling vibration in a Bluetooth-connected helmet,” CBS science and technology editor Amanda Schupak explains.

And Chevrolet also debuted tech that can help cars self-diagnose what potential issues they might soon have—before your car actually even sees the performance effects. And this isn’t far-future tech, either—it’s slated to appear in Tahoes, Surburbans, Corvettes and other models by the end of this year. Imagine knowing your fuel pump or starter motor has a problem before it really became a problem.

Looking Ahead

What’s fascinating about connected cars dominating CES is that the entire auto industry seems to be in agreement: Self-driving and uber-connected cars are not a matter of if, but when. What’s perhaps even more fascinating is the following question: Will we own self-driving cars, or will we simply rent or share them, like we do so much else in our lives? Could a car some day be a service, not a product? If we don’t have to be doing the driving, will we still want to own cars? Auto makers are hoping that if we make them comfortable enough, chic enough, and helpful enough, that answer will be yes.