Autonomous Cars, Electric Vehicles Turn CES Into an Auto Show

NEWS ANALYSIS: Autonomous cars, electric power and connected car user interfaces are making CES 2016 as much of an auto show as a consumer technology convention.

CES Auto Show 2

You could be excused if you'd wandered into the CES 2016 in Las Vegas and momentarily thought you had stumbled into an auto show.

By all accounts, this year's CES has been all about the biggest consumer purchase that most people make —the automobile. That should be no surprise now that cars are becoming more like digital devices at multiple levels.

This year there are three broad categories of electric and digital automotive technologies making their appearance at CES. The first group is a continuation of what's been seen for the past few years—autonomous cars.

They've been at CES before, at the big CeBIT technology show in Germany, and at many of the big auto shows from Geneva to Paris to New York. This year at CES, automotive autonomy is bigger than ever based on the number of manufacturers making announcements and displaying technology.

Also bigger than ever are electric vehicles. While electric cars have been around since the earliest days of the auto industry, new electric cars that can go long distances in comfort, and can be recharged quickly and easily enough to be practical are showing up in greater numbers.

Now manufacturers are showing cars that can do the same thing, including a new version of the Volkswagen Microbus called BUDD-e that can drive 300 miles on a single charge.

Gesture control is already here in a few cars, notably the BMW 7-series, but a number of cars are planning to deliver gesture control in the near term. But there's a lot more going on in automotive user interfaces than just gestures. Bosch is showing haptic touch screens that provide the feel of physical buttons on a touch screen.

New user interfaces could show up in nearly any car as features such as gesture control and haptic screens catch on. The idea behind gesture control is that the car's control system would watch an area near one of your hands, and when you made specific gestures in that area, the car would know what you want it to do.

A specific wave might turn the radio volume up while another would turn on voice control so you could make a phone call.

Gesture controls, and haptic screens for that matter, are intended to make the car more intuitive to use. The number of features and related controls available in today's cars already add a level of complexity that it's hard for drivers to keep their focus on driving.

I'm still trying to imagine how one would control gestures on a bumpy road. When I tried out a gesture control system at the Volkswagen stand at CeBIT two years ago, I found it to still be a work in progress. Still, gesture control of some type seems to be a certainty in the near future as does the continued growth of electric vehicles.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...