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Conference attendees photograph the Audi Sport Quattro laserlight concept car, featuring laser headlights, at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada Jan. 9, 2014. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)
Conference attendees photograph the Audi Sport Quattro laserlight concept car, featuring laser headlights, at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada Jan. 9, 2014. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)

The really smart cars debut in Vegas Add to ...

It is a trade show most commonly associated with tablets, smartphones and high-definition TVs. But the most important innovations coming out of this year’s iteration of the Consumer Electronics Show are designed for a much older technology: Cars.

As the world’s biggest electronics industry gathering enters its final days in Las Vegas this week, auto makers have proven to be the surprise of the show, unveiling a bold vision of vehicles that can do everything but drive themselves – and maybe even that, too.

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“When you think of CES, cars may not be … the very first thing that would come to mind,” said Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association, which runs CES.

“But the truth is that cars have become a mobile technology platform.”

As with every product category at CES, the auto technology arena contained no shortage of futuristic innovations that are unlikely to hit the consumer market any time soon – in this case, self-driving cars. Both BMW and Toyota showed off demos of such vehicles, and Google, whose presence is often felt at CES even though the company has no booth there, has spent years developing driverless technology. German engineering firm Bosch also unveiled an app that uses car-mounted sensors to park a vehicle whether or not the driver is at the wheel.

Still, years of testing and regulatory hurdles likely stand between self-driving cars and everyday consumers.

But this year’s show also featured some very real car technology that will likely hit roads before the end of the year. Chiefly, the focus at CES was on turning vehicles into tablets with wheels, capable of doing everything from downloading e-mails to streaming videos.

At a keynote speech this week, Audi CEO Rupert Stadler announced the company is partnering with AT&T to bring 4G wireless technology to new Audis. The technology allows Audi to introduce all manner of digital tools to the vehicle, including the rapid transmission of video content.

“If mobility used to be about connecting places and people, it is now about connecting the drive,” said Mr. Stadler. “The driver of the car, the car’s surroundings, the driving infrastructure and all the other connected elements in their life.”

The growing interest in bringing smartphone and tablet technology to vehicles is good news for the likes of QNX, the BlackBerry-owned Canadian company that develops high-end digital dashboards for dozens of vehicle makes and models. At this year’s show, QNX showed off its “infotainment” system, which works with voice and touch commands and allows users to do things like play videos and look through on-board cameras. The company has also developed a technology that helps auto makers “synthesize” traditional engine sounds, allowing a Prius to sound like a Lamborghini.

But perhaps the most significant development at CES this year – related to cars or otherwise – is the emergence of a group of the auto and technology industry’s biggest players, united around a common platform for in-car entertainment and information.

Dubbed the Open Automotive Alliance, the Google-led group has as its mission statement the integration of the Android operating system into a fleet of cars, with the first vehicles rolling out by the end of this year. The group’s other founding members include Audi, Honda, General Motors, Hyundai and the graphics chip maker Nvidia.

In effect, the group represents a variation of Google’s strategy in the smartphone and tablet industries, wherein the company creates and gives away for free a platform that runs on any device, and then makes money off advertising by being the middle-man in all digital transactions. In this case, the device is the car.

It’s important to note that we’ll enthusiastically work with any company interested in the integration of Android with cars,” said Google spokesman Aaron Brindle. “The hope is that customizing the Android experience for the car makes driving safer, easier and more enjoyable.”

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