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Your Car Needs an App: The Automobiles of CES

The car of the future will be a smartphone you can drive.

by Derek Mead
Jan 10 2014, 10:00am
Audi's gorgeous quattro laserlight (yes, lowercase) concept

Modern cars are technological marvels, chock full of more computers and sensors than just about anything else we own. Even then, the industry continues to turn their cars into gadgets. At last year's CES, we saw that automakers wanted to power cars with smartphone, and since they've further integrate Android and everything else. This year, aside from green technology and high-tech efficiency, one thing stood out: Future cars need apps.

It'd take all my time in Vegas to cover all of the autos at CES with exhaustive reviews, so instead I tried to pull out a couple notable things each manufacturer is doing. Hopefully, it's a solid primer for where autos are heading this year, same as last year's. Of course, go ahead and let me know in the comments.

(I'm writing off my notes, so the list is based on when I wandered across each automakers. No hierarchy intended! They're all cool.)


Mercedes had a pair of its enormous luxo-barges on display, which the businessmen in attendance were eating up. The S550 had all the tech amenities you'd expect in the luxury sector these days: Instead of gauges, it had a pair of massive screens, and the huge back seats each had a touchscreen the size of a small tablet mounted on the back of the front seats.

Naturally, everything had a QR code. What stood out for me in Mercedes' booth were its trumpeting of wearable connectivity—your smartwatch can now connect to a large array of Mercedes apps. (Naturally, the car has its own internet connection.) Also interesting was what Mercedes calls its "predictive user experience." Essentially, the car can combine a number of factors: Weather, trip route, time of day, traffic conditions, and so on to customize the drive and safety systems to match any conditions in advance. High tech, right?


This Audi quattro laserlight concept was by far my favorite car of the show. It's gorgeous. Naturally, it's just a concept, and I doubt Audi will build it. And even if they do, I won't be able to afford it. But hey, we can dream, right?

The laserlight thing is, as you might have guessed, because the concept uses laser diodes instead of LEDs for its headlamps. Audi says the lights shoot out to as far as 500 meters, or roughly double LEDs.

Laser headlamps aside, what's interesting about the luxury space is just how obscenely competitive is. And with competition comes innovation that's actually useful, like this wireless phone charger hidden in a center console. Horsepower and hauling ass is obviously the best, but it's also cool to see clever bits like this.

Audi also unveiled its Urban Future Initiative, which is the brand's vision for a super-connected automotive future. By connecting cars with each other, along with streetlights and weather reports and everything else, future cities will have smarter, smoother flowing traffic patterns. I'm sure Audi hopes it becomes the leader in the space, but the concept is pretty popular with automakers, and regardless of who really capitalizes on it, Big Data is definitely coming to your commute.


Befitting CES, Toyota focused largely on concept stuff, as the big moneymakers—trucks, Camrys—get introduced at more auto-specific shows. This three-wheel monster is the FV2 mobility concept, which is nominally powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. The hatch flips up to accept a single passenger, and is the latest product of Japanese automakers' long-held interest in small, single-person vehicles. I wouldn't expect anything like it to come to market any time soon.

Closer to production is the FCV concept, which is also hydrogen powered. Japanese automakers have long been interested in bringing a fuel cell car to market, and recently there's been a fresh push to make hydrogen a reality. Of course, with the vast, vast majority of our filling stations dedicated to gas and diesel, making hydrogen work will require a huge shift in our auto infrastructure.

Toyota most popular concept was this iRoad single-seater with rear steering. To demonstrate its agility, Toyota had some dude drive out from behind a stage and whip it around in circles like a crazy man. It's not the first tilting car around, but it's certainly one of the smallest. Toyota says it's called iRoad because it's designed to "inspire the individual."


In the past couple years, Ford has been leading the charge to bring turbochargers back to market after they largely disappeared in the late 90s. Turbos are great because they allow smaller (thus more fuel efficient) engines produce power comparable to larger, naturally aspirated ones. At CES, Ford instead focused on its plug-in hybrids, like the Fusion Energi above.

With CAFE fuel economy standards becoming more strict, companies like Ford, whose best-selling vehicle is the F-150 pickup, need to increase their corporate fuel economy average in any way they can, hence the emphasis on electrics and plug-in hybrids. Our Brian Merchant wrote about the C-Max Energi a few days ago, a car that's cool because it has solar panels for a roof. Every mile counts!

Here's the new Mustang, which been out for a bit now and which is a diffiult car to photograph. While it was front and center in Ford's stage, Ford wasn't touting its technology—a turbo inline-four option, its independent rear suspension—to a huge degree. It may be because the CES crowd is more interested in electric cars.

Ford also had Ken Block's rallycross Fiesta on hand. I'd give up a lot of precious things to drive this thing sometime. And how cool are those old-school brake vent discs on the front wheels? The car produces a claimed 650 horsepower from a turbo four, and sounds insane.

Like any good rally car, it was presented dirty. Still, the takeaway from Ford was that plug-in hybrids and electrics are only going to get more popular as automakers strive to save gas wherever they can.


Kia has really stepped up its game in recent years, and I dug this KND-7 compact concept, even if the doors would be pretty impractical for the street. The wheels appear to reference the awesome carbon-bladed wheels of Kia's gorgeous GT concept from a couple years ago.

Like Mercedes, Kia went ham advertising its app ecosystem, which it calls Uvo. It does the usual navigation and infotainment bits, and also incorporates things like Pandora and Yelp. I find the latter pretty intriguing as, back in my days living in LA, it would have been fantastic to be able to find non-shitty places to eat while driving around. In any case, the car-as-smartphone meme is growing healthily.

Trying to list off every tech bit—be it safety- or performance-related—that Kia touted on this car would take a book, but I wanted to share this photo to remind automakers that cutaway cars are awesome, and that they should all have one in their booths. Seriously, it's so cool. One takeaway: The car treated its various proximity sensors, cameras, and smart cruise control almost as afterthoughts, which shows just how standard that tech now is. We're in the future!


I was a bit surprised that Mazda just had a pair of Mazda3 sedans on hand, but it is the new model, so I suppose it makes sense. Despite Mazda's video presentation hyping the connection we have with our cars—seriously, the audio said that our cars understand our physical and mental states—the company didn't really highlight its tech too much.

I'll do it for them: The car hooks up to phones over Bluetooth, with speech-to-text support, and it has the full array of adaptive cruise control, lane departure warnings, and blind spot monitoring. All that tech was once relegated to luxury cars, and seeing it on high-volume compacts like this one is a good example of how tech trickles down through the auto industry. Keep that in mind when you think about Mercedes's apps.

Gratuitous Dodge Viper GT3-R Interlude

This monster has almost zero connection to road car we'll be driving, but it's so lovely that we might as well just stare a bit. 

Look at how low and wide it is. Drool. You can read more about it on Dodge's SRT site, and I believe you can order one if you've got the cash. Of course, as the site helpfully notes, it's not street legal. Not that I'd pass up the chance...


I'm writing this after the show closed for the day, and I've only now realized my photos from the Chevy booth are an irretrievable mess. Sorry! I'll have an update with proper pictures tomorrow. I've taken too many photos of Volts in the last couple years, so here's a Corvette.

Chevy also led with its own in-house app platform, called simply the App Shop. It's set to launch with 11 apps, 10 of which are third-party, including TuneIn, iHeartRadio, and NPR, which is a pretty cool addition. The OEM app is called Vehicle HM, and is designed to essentially monitor the whole car. It'll alert drivers if tire pressure is low, and if there's a serious issue with the car, the app will prompt drivers to set up an appointment for maintenance. (As you'd expect, it delivers users to Chevy dealerships, not just any old mechanic.)


This M235i is one of BMW's autonomous vehicle testbeds, and has been designed to haul ass—and drift—around test tracks. I spoke a bit with BMW's Dr. Moritz Werling, who works on the self-driving program, and he said that while the safety features developed in the program—avoidance, collision prediction, and so on—trickle down to road cars as they're ready, we're a few years out from actually having autonomous systems that don't need to be programmed to a specific track. That, of course, is pending US lawmakers actually making autonomous driving legal.

I also asked Werling about Audi's push for connected cars and whether or not automakers—even German arch-rivals—will work together to make sure all cars can talk to each other. He said that, since the advantages of networked cars benefit everyone, he expects all automakers will work together to make smart traffic a reality.

Last but not least (well, maybe size-wise) is this little i3 electric city car. Like its bigger brother, the lovely and wild i8, the i3 has made a big splash in the all-electric space, all in a more affordable package. It's got self-parking capability, which is an early product of the autonomous car program (Connected Drive, in BMW-speak), and of anything we've seen, is probably closest to the vision of the Car of the Future we all had in the 90s.

CES is a place where automakers hype their gadget-like features more than anything else, and it's thus not surprising that we've focus on car computers far more than all the good things like horsepower numbers, mileage ratings, and comparing the scents of leather interiors. But even with that skewed lens, the car trends for 2014 and beyond are clear: Every car is going to get smarter and more connected, and no car will be worth its salt unless it's got an app.