Jan. 7, 2011 at 11:04 AM ET
"Science fiction is becoming fact," Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association (and a man who doesn't know the meaning of the word "restraint"), said yesterday as he helped show off the latest gleaming product at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
It wasn't a computer or a TV or a mega-phone. It was a car — specifically, the e-tron Spyder, a concept hybrid car from Audi.
In fact, it's the opposite of science fiction. Automobiles and computer technology appeal to many of the same people, so it's not strange at all that cars are going electric and are being loaded with high-tech audiovisual and navigation gear. Every year, the auto pavilion is one of the biggest attractions at CES as cars with USB ports, Wi-Fi, touch screens, voice GPS — you name it — verge ever closer to becoming indistinguishable from your computer.
Audi is by no means the only major manufacturer featuring hybrid and all-electric cars here this year. For the first time, CES has a stand-alone electric-vehicle tech zone, where you can look over not only the e-tron Spyder — an extended-range hybrid that runs on four motors — but also hybris and electric cars and related technology from Ford, General Motors and Toyota.
Visteon's C-Beyond is drawing especially curious crowds at CES, where it is making its North American debut. You may not have heard of Visteon, but it's the company behind much of the high-tech gear that shows up in the big automakers' cars. The C-Beyond is its demonstration model showing off more than 40 of Visteon's most advanced products, including haptic-feedback news, weather and entertainment consoles; next-generation climate control; and futuristic recessed interior and exterior lighting, which make it look vaguely like what the crew on ET's mothership might come up with if it were marooned in Detroit.
It even has ports in the hatch to attach a keyboard and a mouse to help run everything.
A lot of buzz is also surrounding the keynote presentation today by Ford CEO Alan Mulally, which starts at 2 p.m. ET. Ford won't explicitly say what he's announcing, but if you go to its Facebook page you'll find word that he's supposed to make "big news" alongside lots of teasers about the Focus BEV (for "battery electric vehicle") and an intriguing picture of a glowing charging port:
Only automakers make actual autos, of course, so cars themselves are just a small part of the auto zone. Dozens of companies are here pushing their computer-in-the-car products, heavy on navigation and systems that they say allow drivers to play their stored media, check e-mail and communicate with others safely at the wheel.
They're pretty much full computers. For example, Microsoft's voice-activated Sync software, which it developed with Ford and which has been a marquee attraction at CES for several years, is adding support for the Pandora Internet music service and will soon be available on the Mustang.
Microsoft is a small part of a rival voice-activated system announced this week by Toyota, called Entune, which uses Bing as its search engine, while Hyundai is also getting into the game, rolling out Bluelink, which adds iTunes-like music software to the now-standard navigation and infotainment features.
Systems like those are often among the most eye-catching displays at CES, but new technology ideas can still pop up and surprise you. For instance, how about an Android car?
Parrot SA, a French company that specialized in wireless technologies, has drawn some of the biggest crowds this week to its Asteroid system, which is pretty much a Google Android computer embedded in the dashboard. (It's run by Google Voice commands, Parrot is quick to say, so drivers aren't fiddling with a keyboard at 70 mph.)
Asteroid runs Android's versions of navigation and location-based services, making it seem at first not so different from Sync or GM's OnStar. And speaking of OnStar, it will be available for the first time on non-GM cars through a cellular-equipped rear-view mirror with that familiar gray button, to be sold at Best Buy.
What distinguishes Asteroid from the competition is its access to the Android Market — the same one on Android smartphones and tablets. The company hasn't publicized details on how exactly that will work, but conceivably the system should be able to install and run most Android apps that can operate through voice control.
The limitation? Just like Android on any other platform — and most computers these days, whether they're four-wheeled or not — it's essentially crippled if it doesn't have a reliable connection to the Internet.