Asleep at the wheel: Searching for super-smart cars at CES

Manufacturers are showing off increasingly autonomous, connected vehicles in the quest for intelligent cars

By Tim Hornyak, IDG News Service |  

Cool, intelligent car? Check. Controller wristwatch? Check. Now all you need is the leather jacket and 1980s perm to be Michael Knight.

The crime-fighting hero of the classic 1980s TV show "Knight Rider" and his artificially intelligent sidekick car, KITT, inspired a generation of kids to look forward to a future where smart vehicles are an extension of their drivers. At the International CES expo, exhibitors are showing a range of technologies that are bringing that dream closer.

Mobile device connections, active safety features and autonomous driving are turning cars into your own "personal robot," as Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang describes it.

"The car will be your most important personal computer," he told reporters at Nvidia's press conference on Sunday. The company wants its upcoming 192-core Tegra K1 graphics chip to be used for HD video playback and 3D gaming for passengers, as well as for driver assistance programs such as collision avoidance. Along with GM, Honda and other carmakers, Nvidia is part of Google's Open Automotive Alliance (OAA), announced Monday, that will bring the Android platform to cars in 2014 in a standardized infotainment ecosystem.

Audi, another OAA member, showed off the second generation of its zFAS car "brain," a tablet-sized piece of hardware that piloted an A7 sedan onto the stage during an Audi keynote presentation. The device was also parking Audis all by itself outside the Las Vegas convention center.

When viewed through rose-tinted spectacles, all the zFAS needs is a prissy accent and a turbo boost, and you'd have your own personal KITT.

Car enthusiasts at CES who are looking forward to super-intelligent, self-driving cars want to know when they'll be able to fall asleep at the wheel while "driving" to work.

"There will be no big bang to get an autonomously driving car," said Elmar Frickenstein, executive vice president of Electrics/Electronics and Driving Experience Environment at BMW. "That's my personal belief, because it goes step by step. In the past, we didn't have ABS brakes or dynamic stability controls. Today we have all these things."

The most important step for BMW is high-resolution map data, Frickenstein said after speaking at a panel on how technology is changing driving. "Then, we can drive autonomously on the road."

Autonomous cars have been under development to some degree for decades but gained a major impetus with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge of 2005, a 212-kilometer (131-mile) off-road race in California and Nevada that was won by a modified Volkswagen Touareg from Stanford University in just under seven hours.

Since then, production cars have been getting autonomous features such as driver assist, but cars at CES were taking the next step.

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