Hi-tech accelerates the future of cars

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Media captionFord chief executive Alan Mulally: ''We will electrify in steps''

CES is the place to be if you are a hi-tech firm with a gadget to unveil to the world.

In 2011, it was the place Ford chose to unveil a new car - the electric version of its Focus. It will be on sale in the US by the end of the year and Europe soon after.

Debuting the Focus at CES rather than the Detroit Motor Show indicates how important in-car electronics have become to every manufacturer and car owner.

"The most exciting innovations are not the ones happening in homes and offices, they are in cars," said Audi boss Rupert Stadtler. "These changes will link the way we drive with the way we live which until now have been separate."

Anyone who has bought a new car recently knows that those innovations have been making themselves felt for a while as manufacturers swap dials for digital displays and tachometers for touch screens.

Information driven

Image caption Audi's e-tron spyder concept car hints at the future of electric vehicles

At CES the links between the computer world and the car world are laid bare. One example of the cross-connection was the deal Nvidia announced with both Audi and BMW to use its Tegra 2 chip to draw the 3D graphics on the instrument panels of future vehicles from both firms.

Low power chips such as Tegra 2 were only going to become more important as petrol is swapped for batteries, said Nvidia founder Jen-Hsun Huang.

"If you have barely any power you had best be miserly on energy consumption," he said, "because energy consumption directly relates to weight and that directly relates to fuel efficiency."

As he implies, the need to get the most out of a vehicle becomes acute if it is battery powered.

The limited range of electric vehicles and the time it takes to re-fuel means it will become essential for drivers to plan their route and know the location of charging stations before they set out.

Fuel stations litter most nations and anyone taking a drive in a petrol powered car can rely on finding one no matter where they go. The same is not true of charging stations and may not be for a long time. As of January 2011, there were only 1800 charging stations in the whole of the US. By contrast, there were more than 120,000 gas stations.

Ford is seeking to ease this information burden using apps for Apple and Android smartphones that future owners of their electric Focus will use to plan routes and find charging stations before the car runs out of juice.

Via the phone and the dashboard of the car, the app will tell drivers if they are driving efficiently or not. This is because those who are gentle on the brakes and accelerator will get many more miles from a full battery than those with a lead foot.

All this points up the fact that cars are rapidly becoming mobile databases awash with information about the vehicle, its surroundings and how it is being driven.

Social networking

Venkatesh Prasad, technical leader of Ford's infotronics group, said in the future cars will know huge amounts about the lives of their drivers, the routes they take, their music tastes and where they go to shop and eat.

They were going to be able do this, he said, because of the huge amount of social network information people are getting happier to share. Including a car in the circle of friends who are party to this data could help the vehicle prepare itself for the "context" of each journey.

"That will help it understand your context," he said. "What you want before you get in, when you get and what changes when some passengers leave."

This could mean cueing up the music you like, storing podcasts of radio shows you may have missed or looking ahead to secure a parking spot in town.

The dawn of an age when cars can do this was very close, said Mr Prasad.

Smarter car

Even now cars are fitted with sensors that make them far more adept on the road than their drivers.

Image caption Modern cars know they are in a crash long before their occupants

For instance, cars know a crash is taking place about seven milliseconds after initial impact as the pressure wave from the smash hits acceleration sensors. Many respond almost a millisecond later by tensioning seat belts, unlocking doors, rolling down windows and inflating airbags.

By contrast, a human will take up to 300 milliseconds just to realise another car has hit them let alone take any action.

These driver assistance systems are becoming standard on newer cars and there is a growing market in gadgets that add some of that intelligence to older vehicles.

At CES, MobileEye showed off a dashboard mounted camera that can warn of collisions several seconds before they happen or it can alert a driver if they straying out of their lane.

Taser showed off the Protector system that can, when paired with a mobile, stop a person calling or texting while driving. It is one of many similar gadgets that try to make driving safer.

Also at CES, inthinc showed off the Tiwi, a device that monitors a car's speed and location and relays the information to parents keen to keep an eye on where their offspring are going and how fast. It also delivers verbal warnings if it detects a car being driven faster than the speed limit or handled recklessly.

Todd Follmer, creator of the gadget, said it can also be programmed to recognise "geo-fences" and warn when a vehicle is taken beyond these virtual borders.

Developing Tiwi was not straightforward, said Mr Follmer, because there is little standardisation among manufacturers about the format of information sent over the data bus inside a car.

"It's mandated that diagnostic codes are published so anyone can work on your car," said Mr Follmer. "But a lot of the stuff we get is not standard. We have to reverse engineer what's on the bus to get at it."

His comments cut to the crux of the debate about the smarter cars we will all be driving in the future, how much they will know about us and what happens to that data - are we still in the driving seat?

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