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Goldstuck on Gadgets

Meet the car of the future

The car of the future won’t have wings, but it will have some of that James Bond appeal, as Mercedes and Ford demonstrated at the Consumer Electronic Show this month, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

May I apologise in advance? Like many years in advance?

I am sorry to have to inform you that the car of the future won’t have wings, and it won’t be able to do your thinking for you. Well, not all of it.

But it will be voice-controlled, have high-speed wireless broadband serving an on-board WiFi hotspot, allow you to download apps, and provide in-car TV and streaming video. It may even have Back to the Future-style lifting doors.

These were a few of the innovations breathlessly announced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this month. While the Ford Focus Electric was the official car of the show, the Mercedes F125! concept car stole the show with its DeLorean-style lifting doors and James Bond appeal.

It joined the head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, Dr. Dieter Zetsche, on stage for his keynote address, both to wow the audience and help him make a point.

“Here at CES in Las Vegas there are some people who view the automobile as an accessory to consumer electronics,‚ he said. ‚Conversely, at the auto show in Detroit there are many people who view consumer electronics as mere trimmings for the car.

“”Both views miss the point: as much as a smartphone can be far more than just a tool for communication, a smart car can be more than just a means of transportation. Precisely at the interfaces between communication and mobility, vast potential for innovation lies dormant, and we intend to tap it.””

So while there are no wings, there is a technology called DICE, for Dynamic and Intuitive Control Experience.

It turns the entire windshield into a head-up display, while the dashboard becomes a display band. Both of these ‚interfaces‚ display digital information about the vehicle surroundings, points of interest, friends, pedestrians and other vehicles ‚ pretty much what your eyes did for you before. The useful thing is that you don’t have to take your eyes off the road, and can control the information provided through gestures.

And these are also social cars: not only can you get local news from social networks about your location, but you can stream music from a club that you’re passing, into your car. Why? Because you can.

More usefully, says Zetsche, vehicles approaching intersections will be virtually superimposed on the windshield to help avoid danger. More commonly, network information will be used to find parking spots.

He points out that secure Internet access in the car is already offered by Mercedes-Benz today in numerous models. The multimedia system COMAND Online offers Mercedes-Benz Apps, like Google Local Search and Google Street View, as well as Facebook.

Not to be outdone, Alan Mulally, president and CEO of Ford Motor Company, was on hand to unveil the new Ford Focus Electric and the Ford Explorer Hybrid.

The Focus features similar technology to that offered by Merc, but uses different names: Ford SYNC, MyFord Touch driver connect technology, Intelligent Access with Push Button Start, and Active Park Assist.

The significance of the Ford options, however, is that the technology is not only available in premium vehicles. And that means it could find its way to a car ahead of you in the traffic in the near future. The Focus still needs a bit of connecting and plugging in of accessories to turn it into a Wi-Fi hotspot, but the technology will probably become seamless in future models.

Other auto makers were not shy in showing off their cars of the future, either. Hyundai displayed in-car TV screens: Audi showed off Google Earth and Wi-Fi hotspots in several models: Chrysler unveiled Uconnect, a system that includes voice-controlled navigation and voice commands. And that is even before the array of new, hi-tech audio solutions now being built into the cars.

None of these managed to upstage Ford and Mercedes, but they all sent one clear signal: the car can no longer be separated from consumer technology.

* Arthur Goldstuck’s is editor-in-chief of Gadget and heads up World Wide Worx. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee.

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