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Cleverest car tech innovations from CES

Automotive suppliers offer a look into the future

Published: January 14, 2014 04:00 PM

One of the best things about going to CES is the opportunity to see not just the latest technology the automakers have to offer, but what’s on tap from their suppliers too. At events such as CES, those innovative companies get a chance to pitch systems of the future to carmakers, well before they are planned for a coming model. Going behind the industry curtain, we saw many potential tech features this year, and below we present the ones we think are simply the coolest and may be on your next new car.

Smart LED high beams

Many carmakers offer automatic high beams, which switch to low beams to ease glare for oncoming traffic, but automatically go back to high beams when the road is clear. It sounds great in theory, but we’ve seen mixed results in testing. Full LED headlights, such as those on the redesigned Cadillac Escalade, use many individual LEDs to create the beam pattern, rather than one or two conventional bulbs. Shown by the supplier Valeo, the full-LED BeaMatic headlights provide high beam light all the time, but selectively shut down individual LEDs to avoid blinding oncoming traffic. An intriguing concept that should help attain a better balance between visibility and glare, such lights are already available in Europe, but lighting laws currently prohibit the use of this technology in the United States. But, that may change.

Eye and facial recognition

The auto suppliers Valeo and Visteon showed systems that can detect who is behind the wheel using eye and or facial recognition to prevent an unauthorized driver from starting the car, or set individual driver preferences, such as seat and mirror positions, radio station presets, and more. Conceivably, this could provide teen safety benefits, for example by setting speed warnings or stereo volume limits when a certain young driver is behind the wheel. The technology can also provide traffic information or allow a driver to adjust the radio with a quick glance at dashboard controls. It can even set off an appropriate warning when it detects drowsiness in a driver’s eyes.

Advanced haptic feedback

Automakers are already using haptic (touch) feedback to make touch screens easier to use without looking by generating a fingertip vibration when a virtual button is pushed. One problem is, if all the buttons give identical feedback, it’s hard to know whether you pressed the right one. To address this, Texas Instruments showed us touch screens that provide different types of feedback for different controls, such as two quick vibrations or some lasting longer than others. Expect to see it in new models soon.

Gesture control

Some drivers are already well versed in using hand gestures behind the wheel, usually directed at other drivers with little or no positive effect. But Visteon showed us a cockpit mockup featuring screens that respond to drivers' finger motions, allowing them to adjust temperature and more without taking their eyes off the road or touching a control. It looks similar to the way kids interact with XBox Kinect as they gesture into thin air. This one is probably still a few years away.

Touch screens with integral knobs

Carmakers like the stylish look of touch screens, and the customization and efficiency they offer for cramming a lot of controls into relatively little dashboard real estate. But sometimes, they just can’t beat an old fashioned knob for simplicity. Texas Instruments showed us a way to combine the best of both, with a touch screen that includes built-in knobs. The knobs can serve a variety of purposes, from radio tuning to temperature control. They even have a click feel when turned, so that the driver can precisely raise or lower temperature one degree at a time, for example. Expect to see them in production within a couple of years.

—Jim Travers

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