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CES 2014: 2 tech trends dominating the car world

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The International Consumer Electronics Show is a chance for thousands of startups to showcase their gadgets and for big, established companies to unveil how they're using tech to transform everyday consumer products. 

Take the car, for example. A number of automakers have made announcements at (and even before) CES. The central theme? It's all about the connected car and the continued, yet slow, experimentation with self-driving cars.

Tech companies are digging into the auto industry to make driving cars safer, cleaner and hopefully more enjoyable in an increasingly crowded world. Here are a few of the notable announcements to come from automakers at the CES. 

Google's Android hits the road
 
Google teamed up with Audi, GM, Honda, Hyundai and Nvidia to create the Open Automotive Alliance, a partnership that aims to bring the Android platform to cars starting in 2014. As fellow SP colleague Charlie Osborne noted yesterday, Google sees a world where the operating system is optimized for driving—offering drivers apps and music through a car's interactive dashboard. 

Drivers could sync their music playlist across their tablet, PC and car, for example. Or driving-based apps, such as traffic and weather reports, could be delivered in real time to drivers. (Hmmmm.....that Waze purchase last year makes even more sense.)

And since Android is an open-source platform it will be easier and less costly for automakers and software developers to integrate apps into the car. 

OnStar's transformation

GM's OnStar service has been around for 17 years and is in its 10th hardware generation. But it's always been associated with its call-in support service, not as a tool to turn your car into a mobile hub of entertainment and data. This year, it's evolving into a fully connected car. 

Most of GM's Chevy vehicles including the 2015 Corvette and plug-in hybrid Volt will be embedded with OnStar 4G LTE connectivity, a tech upgrade that includes built-in Wi-Fi and an app store. The 4G LTE rollout will mean most Chevrolet vehicles will allows its passengers (and let's be honest probably the drivers too) to connect their smartphones, laptops and tablets to high-speed Internet without burning through their data plans. 

Each vehicle can accommodate multiple devices at one time, the automaker said. In short, these vehicles will become mobile entertainment and communications hubs. And unlike the current setup for GM cars in the U.S., which are connected to Verizon's 2G CDMA networks, this arrangement with AT&T will bring faster speeds. 

The automaker, which is part of the Open Automotive Alliance I wrote about above, is also adding an app store that drivers and passengers can access. Every Chevrolet with "AppShop" will come equipped with the OnStar 4G LTE hardware and data plans for an additional charge. 

GM says the so-called AppShop should help keep smartphones in pockets. And features that require a large amount of attention, like those that use a keyboard, are unavailable while the vehicle is moving. 

AT&T is also partnering with Audi to provide 4G LTE connection in the new Audi A3. 

Oh and remember Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff) communicating with KITT via his watch in Knight Rider? BMW announced it's working with Samsung to bring vehicle functions to the smartphone maker's electronic wristwatch. The Samsung Galaxy Gear with BMW iRemote App offers information on the battery charge and available range of the automaker's all-electric i3 model. The research app also allows users to send a navigation destination to the vehicle or adjust the on-board climate in preparation for a journey.

The self driving car

A few companies unveiled concept cars and prototypes that have some autonomous driving capability. During Audi's showcase, the A7 "piloted" itself onto the stage. (See that moment here at 16:26.) 

Induct Technology introduced its Navia shuttle, an all-electric vehicle that can fit 10 people standing and drives itself. The shuttle, which is already in use in the U.K. and Switzerland, will be commercially available in the U.S. this year. 

BMW also introduced an autonomous car feature with a concept technology that would take over and provide "highly automated driving" in emergency situations. BMW demonstrated the driver-assist technology, which was designed to "actively intervene in the direction-changing decision-making process and ensure the electronically controlled steering works in perfect harmony with the brakes and accelerator," the company said. 

In other words, this tech isn't reactive like current systems that take over when the driver under- or over-steers. Instead, it does the driving for you (for the whole journey) when things get rough. 

Photo: John F. Martin, John F. Martin for Chevrolet

— By on January 7, 2014, 10:52 AM PST

Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure