Every January, the world’s auto industry fixes its focus on Detroit and the North American International Auto Show.
The attention on Detroit continues but, over the past few years, that focus has been broadened, with some of the attention shifting to the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held in Las Vegas.
More and more, the subject matter of the two shows has been overlapping, with cars becoming little more than mobile carriers for an ever-expanding array of electronic gadgetry.
“You’d be hard pushed to find an (automotive) innovation that isn’t related to electronics nowadays,” says Ricky Hudi, head of electrics and electronics development at Audi.
In fact, the two business streams have converged so much that keynote speakers at the CES over the past three years have included Dr. Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz, Rupert Stadler, chairman of Audi AG, and Alan Mulally, president and CEO of Ford Motor Company.
Although the two shows have coincided in the past, they’re a week apart this year: the CES took place at the Las Vegas Convention Center this week; the Detroit show begins with media conferences at the Cobo Center on Monday.
Automotive content played a major role at the CES, with semi-autonomous cars from Audi and Toyota grabbing much of the mainstream media coverage.
In fact, seven of the world’s largest automakers demonstrated their technological wares at the show: Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Hyundai, Subaru, Audi and Toyota.
Much of the hardware and software introduced can be classified as infotainment aids and apps, further blurring the lines between cars, cellphones and other communication and entertainment devices.
Others were aimed more directly at the act of driving — or being driven.
Both the Audi and Lexus vehicles on display incorporated driving features that effectively take over many of the less-pleasurable aspects of driving, such as parking, as well as helping prevent crashes.
Neither has gone quite as far as Google’s fully driverless experimental vehicle, but that’s the direction the industry is heading.
Just this week, Audi became the first automaker to be granted a licence to test driverless vehicles on public roads in Nevada.
For now, Audi says, the spotlight is on networking the car with its environment — with a particular focus on what might be described as driving on autopilot, and on mobile communications.
“A defining feature of the last decade was that we integrated all the functions in the car,” says Hudi. “This decade will see us network the car seamlessly with the environment . . . with the driver, the Internet, the infrastructure and with other vehicles.”
Audi calls its system “piloted driving” and says the technology will be technically feasible before the end of the decade.
As an example of its potential capability, in congested traffic at speeds up to 60 km/h, the Audi system will help the driver steer, accelerate and brake.
In future, piloted driving will also be able to manoeuvre the vehicle autonomously in and out of tight parking spaces or garages, Audi says.
The advanced active-safety research vehicle Toyota displayed at the CES is based on the top-of-the-line Lexus LS sedan, which already includes state-of-the-science electronic driver aids and crash-prevention features.
The research vehicle adds further sensors and automated control systems that can observe, process and respond to the vehicle’s surroundings.
They include GPS, stereo cameras, radar and a 360-degree, roof-mounted LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) laser that detects objects around the car up to about 70 metres away.
Three high-definition colour cameras can detect objects about 150 metres away, including traffic lights and vehicles approaching from the side.
An inertial measurements unit on the roof measures acceleration and angle changes to determine vehicle behaviour.
Toyota says the research vehicle is a testing platform aimed at developing systems to help enhance the driver’s perception of the surrounding environment and assist in the decision-making process.
As to when a fully-autonomous vehicle might be in the works, Toyota says it will continue with a step-by-step, layered introduction of proven technologies, rather than make a moon-shot leap to full autonomy.
All within the regulatory, legal and social frameworks acceptable in each country, of course.