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CES 2013 recap: Apps and autonomous cars

Automakers had a large presence at the technology trade show, but still struggled to move at the tech industry's rapid speed.

By Douglas Newcomb Jan 14, 2013 9:47AM

Audi autonomous car. Photo by Audi.More than any auto show, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is the place to gauge the future of car technology. It’s only been in the past half-decade that automakers have begun attending the annual gadget fest in droves. But in that short time, it’s become the venue that many car companies choose to debut their most cutting-edge technologies

Two trends stood out at CES 2013: applications and autonomous vehicles. The former are finally becoming available in greater numbers, but automakers are still well behind the rest of the mobile-technology world in regard to apps. The latter are still several years off, but automakers could fall behind in getting the technology out to the market.

Ford announced the release of close to a dozen new apps, three years after it introduced the AppLink feature for its Sync system at CES, with only a handful of apps in the interim. Motown rival General Motors also introduced a smattering of new apps for its infotainment platforms.

More importantly, Ford and GM both announced at CES that they are opening their software interfaces and dashboards to outside developers, in the same way that mobile-device innovators such as Apple and Google opened their platforms to third-party developers many years ago. Ford even went a step further by announcing that Sync AppLink would be available to any automaker that chooses to use it. The goal is to create a larger, Androidlike app platform for the car, in the hope that developers will prefer not hassling with separate apps for each automaker’s proprietary platform.

While apps are where it’s at, some wonder whether automakers have missed the boat on the app craze. While the mobile-technology world -- and consumers -- may soon be on to the next new thing, automakers could once again be left behind and playing catch-up.

Autonomous driving was the other big buzz at CES. Audi made news the day before the show started by becoming the first automaker to be granted a license to operate an autonomous car on public roads by Nevada. Audi also had a demonstration of what it calls “piloted driving” in its CES booth. Lexus unveiled its own autonomous test car at the show.

If you speak with any automaker currently developing autonomous-driving technology -- and mention Google’s rapid gains in the field -- it will tell you that the auto industry has been working on this for decades. This is true. Google, of course, isn’t constrained by the same liability issues that concern automakers, nor does it have to bother considering whether the technology is marketable.

Audi declared at its CES press conference that we’ll have autonomous cars by the end of the decade, and GM has made a similar statement in the past.


The auto industry has always been an engine of innovation for U.S. technology, and the profusion of  driver-assist safety systems -- such as Toyota’s Lane Keep Assist and Audi’s active cruise control with Stop & Go  -- are providing the steppingstones for autonomous driving. But now that technology such as mobile apps is becoming more important to car consumers, automakers will have to lead instead of follow. The fact that they are showing up at CES to be part of the larger tech world is a good start, but they’ll also need to move at the speed of the top tech innovators to stay ahead.

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.

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