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LA recap: Car software steals the spotlight

Automakers and suppliers show off the latest technological advances to the press and government regulators.

By Douglas Newcomb Dec 3, 2012 2:19PM

Siri Eyes Free integration in the Chevy Spark. Photo by General Motors.As great as the debuts were at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show, it's the software that stood out.

Evidence that this new technology is shaping automotive trends and beginning to define public policy was all over the show floor. During last week's press days, I not only saw several major car tech announcements, but for the first time watched technology titans such as Intel and Sprint display their products at a major auto show.

Shows like LA have traditionally been the sole turf of automakers. But with an in-car demonstration of Apple Siri Eyes Free, this incursion of software signals a significant sea change. As a further indication, top officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were also walking about to see how automakers were using software -- and, of course, how it could affect driver distraction.

A day before the show opened, Chevrolet held an entire event for its electronics. Here, we saw the first integration of Siri Eyes Free in the Chevy Spark, which makes Apple’s “virtual assistant” available on an attached iPhone 4S or 5 at the touch of a button on the car’s steering wheel. Also on display was a next-generation MyLink infotainment interface for the 2014 Chevy Impala that borrows features from the Cadillac Cue system, such as a customizable touch-screen.

Other automakers made significant tech introductions at the LA Auto Show, including Acura's new AcuraLink infotainment system and Kia's remote smartphone connectivity in its Uvo system. Also, Ford announced yet another upgrade to its much-maligned MyFord Touch, including an extended warranty to placate existing owners.

It was clear in LA that some of the top technology companies are making serious moves into the automotive market. Earlier this year, Intel announced a $100 million venture-capital fund focused on car technology. In its booth, Intel showed a video of a car that could take pictures of local landmarks and supply related information like an onboard tour guide. It also demonstrated how its technology could calculate road conditions and traffic to give drivers a heads-up on potential hazards.

Sprint unveiled its new Velocity connectivity platform at the show. While Verizon recently bought Hughes Telematics, which supplies the Mercedes-Benz mbrace system, and T-Mobile is the wireless provider for the Audi Connect system, Sprint’s move with Velocity is more comprehensive. It’s what Sprint calls an “end-to-end” solution. Translated from marketing-speak, this means that the wireless carrier is looking to provide automakers with a soup-to-nuts tech solution in which it provides not only mobile broadband connectivity but also mobile services, applications, customer service and a range of features.

Sprint already supplies the Uconnect Access system currently available in the 2012 Ram and SRT Viper, and the wireless carrier hopes to do the same for other automakers. In a presentation video announcing Velocity, Sprint showed a car-connectivity future in which the system will allow drivers to do everything from order takeout to find out about nearby discounts via voice while driving down the road.

One high-profile attendee who was checking out the tech at the LA Auto Show was NHTSA Administrator David Strickland, the man responsible for attempting to regulate automaker gadgets. While his boss, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, has been vocal about banning even mobile phones from cars, it’s reassuring to see that Strickland takes a more hands-on approach to car software -- and that he took the time to see what automakers have actually done to keep us more connected -- and hopefully less distracted -- in the car. 

Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.

Dec 9, 2012 3:05PM
Instead of spending all this time and money on all these new "technologies", why don't auto companies research how to make a 100 MPG engine? 
Dec 9, 2012 3:22PM
Get rid of all the high tech and go for economy, comfort and performance.
Dec 9, 2012 6:42PM

One day a car is gonna be called a computer, and NOT a car!

Keep cars as vehicles, and not something to catch a computer virus, dammit!

Dec 16, 2012 9:07AM
Cost vs benefits on the mpg.  The market has not shown that people will pay to support that kind of R&D.
Dec 9, 2012 3:08PM
f$%k mpg more tech and horse power
Jan 5, 2013 1:32PM
Lets make all cars, trucks, etc unable to go if the driver has been drinking!
Dec 9, 2012 1:31PM
Comfort and Safety first all other things fall in line after that based on individual preference
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