Dispatches from CES: The Mobile Tech Stealing the Show Has 4 Wheels

Audi showed off an automated driving concept for navigating trafficked highways at speeds of up to 40 mph.
Forget transforming your living room: There are a dozen or so automakers at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas proposing new technologies to transform your living room on the road: your car.
Most car manufacturers were here. Noticeably absent: Tesla Motors (TSLA), whose all-electric Model S sedan was recently named Motor Trend magazine's Car of the Year for 2013. Perhaps co-founder Elon Musk was too busy working on new ways to send self-driving rockets into space to drop in while the CES crowd is getting worked up over self-driving cars?
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Yes, you read that right. Your next car may be the last one you actually drive. This time, it's carmakers leading the charge on innovation while top consumer tech brand names such as Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT) stayed home.
Even the top brands that did show up to CES -- Samsung and Sony (SNE), notably -- didn't introduce breakthroughs so much as improvements to gear we've already seen: bigger and sharper TVs, slightly improved smartphones, better-quality headsets and speakers. But all told, nothing that's all that groundbreaking.
So move over, Silicon Valley. Make room for Detroit, Germany, and much of Southeast Asia. Here's a closer look at the innovations imported to Vegas from the world's automaking capitals:
  • Ford (F) introduced a new programming interface for its SYNC in-car control system. Coders that register get a kit for writing new dashboard or voice-controlled apps. In an interview, spokesman Gary Strumolo said that the kit also opens the possibility of creating apps that monitor a driver's health. One example: linking a glucose monitor to SYNC via wireless Bluetooth so that a diabetic doesn't go too long without taking needed medicine.
  • General Motors (GM) introduced a developer program of its own with an emphasis on adding infotainment apps to a dashboard control system. As with Apple's famously rigorous iTunes screening program, GM must test and approve apps before they're allowed to access the system.
  • Audi showed off an automated driving concept for navigating trafficked highways at speeds of up to 40 mph. A spokesperson said the system is planned for release before the end of the decade. Meanwhile, the carmaker already has a connected interface that uses a 3G network to sync between a "My Audi" app and the car. Google (GOOG) is a partner for onboard maps -- save a route in My Audi and the map automatically uploads to the car upon syncing. An Audi spokesperson said its connected car service is available as an option for all models.
  • Hyundai (HYMTF) is catering to iPhone 5 owners. The carmaker said its Blue Link in-car system will allow drivers to access Apple's Siri voice control system for finding nearby restaurants, among other things, all without ever touching the phone.
  • Fiat's (FIATY) Chrysler took home AOL Autos' Technology of the Year award for its Uconnect in-car infotainment system. It's feature-rich, to be sure, though I'm not nearly so certain as my colleagues that Uconnect's complex interface is worth naming Technology of the Year. Driving needs to be a seamless and safe experience, which means any add-on tech has to be accessible even as it's invisible. Think voice commands over crowded dashboard displays.

Most of us drive a car. What we don't realize is that it's also perhaps the most complex machine we own. And if it isn't now, it's about to be. From sensors that detect how a driver is performing to wireless connectivity, voice controls, and ultimately hands-free driving, our cars are taking over. The least we can do is profit from the shift.

You can follow Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers on Twitter @milehighfool. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford Motor, Apple, and Google. The Motley Fool has sold shares of Sony short. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of General Motors Company S, Tesla Motors, Ford Motor, Apple, and Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a synthetic covered call position in Microsoft, a synthetic long position in Ford Motor, and a bull call spread position in Apple.

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