For years, the car industry’s attitude to innovation has been akin to a toddler’s appetite for vegetables.
In an era in which Apple’s iPhone has led a revolution in the tech world and wireless internet has become commonplace, auto makers have largely remained content with seat warmers and improved stereo options.
Occasionally a car would come along with cruise control or a camera that could help you park, but dramatic changes to the way you drive have been few and far between. Until now that is. Recent announcements from both CES and the Detroit Motor Show mean that motoring tech is racing ahead of its former self.
Thanks to exciting advancements in autonomous sensors, smart home integration and the battery range of electric vehicles, you could soon be driving a car that deserves its place in the future.
So what do you most need to know about car tech in 2016? Fear not: we’ve compiled a list of the 11 most important innovations and industry developments heading your way very soon.
1) Ford vs Tesla: the autonomous war is on
The most significant automotive announcement from CES was that Ford is tripling its fleet of automotive cars, having confirmed that it officially enrolled in the California Autonomous Vehicle Testing Program in December.
This is important because it means that Ford is now the largest automotive company to have joined the program, and therefore the best placed manufacturer to take on Elon Musk’s Tesla. At least until Apple enters the autonomous fray, but more on that later.
2. Google is probably teaming up with Ford
Google has long been involved in testing autonomous tech and predicts you’ll be able to buy a self-driving vehicle by 2020. Will that be a Google-branded car? At the moment, we don’t know.
That said, a series of long-running rumours have stated that a self-driving partnership between Ford and Google is in the offing. This was expected to be announced at CES last week, but didn’t materialise.
A subsequent report in the Wall Street Journal has stated that both parties are still considering a non-exclusive collaboration and that this would be as part of a wholly new company. The Nexus car has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
3. Tesla leads the autonomous field… for now
Right now, the most advanced autonomous car on the market is Tesla’s Model S. Whereas manufacturers such as Ford and Google are looking to introduce their self-driving tech in one fully-realised package, Tesla prefers to roll out its innovations on a feature by feature basis.
Being able to speed hands-free down the M4 is far from the limit of Tesla’s ambitions though. This week it was announced that the Model S can now be wirelessly summoned to your location from up to 12 metres away, while Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed its cars will be able to autonomously travel across the USA by 2018.
Yup, that’s two years earlier than Google’s prediction. Given the hefty production delays suffered by the Tesla Model X, Musk may have let his astronomic ambitions get the better of him here.
4. Chevrolet has cracked the affordable electric car
Believe it or not, the first electric car was created by Thomas Davenport in 1834. Almost 200 years later, Chevrolet has created one your mum might want to own. The future, eh? It’s been a long time coming.
Unveiled at CES in its final incarnation, the Chevrolet Bolt costs US$30,000 and has a range of 200 miles off one charge. This is a massive deal because it means most the Bolt is attainably priced for most first-time car buyers and it won’t run out of puff when they need it most. It’s claimed to last for 80 miles longer than BMW’s i3 and, better still, it doesn’t look anything akin to the ridiculous Renault Twizy.
Essentially, the Bolt should be good for both your bank balance and the planet.
5. But Tesla isn’t far behind
Tesla’s Model 3 is meant to be the car that will bring the manufacturer into the motoring mainstream. Projected to be unveiled this March and placed into production before the close of 2017, the Model 3 is intended to follow the Chevy Bolt’s lead in terms of both price and range. However, it will also feature the Tesla S’ autonomous capabilities, and that’s why it’s the more exciting car. In theory at least.
6. And neither is Apple
Apple has spent the last year or so hiring engineers from Tesla, registering ‘.auto’ and ‘.car’ domains and developing its CarPlay platform. While the iPhone maker hasn’t officially acknowledged that it’s making a car, all signs indicate that it is indeed doing so. Elon Musk recently told the BBC that it’s an ‘open secret’.
That said, it wouldn’t be unprecedented for Apple to work on a new product before deciding not to take it to market. Let’s not forget that Steve Jobs said, ‘I finally cracked it’ of an Apple TV set before the product was ultimately dropped.
With the TV, Apple reportedly struggled to negotiate an acceptable distribution agreement with content providers. When it comes to a car, there are arguably even more obstacles it will have to overcome before it brings a product to market.
7. Still, CarPlay will remain a priority
We like what we’ve seen of CarPlay so far, even if it’s far from a complete in-car infotainment platform.
Given Volkswagen was reportedly blocked from demonstrating wireless CarPlay functionality in its vehicles at CES, it seems as though Apple will soon reveal further developments to the tech. That’s just as well since both CarPlay and Google’s competing Android Auto platform are set to rollout on to more than 30 vehicles in the 2016 model year.
Additionally, Ford is working hard on its own Sync AppLink platform, which essentially works the same way as CarPlay and Android Auto. It’s even struck a deal with Toyota to incorporate an open-source version of the software called SmartDeviceLink into its vehicles.
Great idea. Terrible name. But AppLink is actually ahead of the curve when it comes to integrating with your smart home tech.
Related › Apple CarPlay review
8. Hydrogen cars are also picking up steam
We were hugely impressed with the hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai when we took it for a spin last year. Despite the obvious problem of owning such a car – chief among them being that there are next to no fuel stations available for it – hydrogen is widely seen as one of the cleanliest alternatives to fossil fuels. More so even than electric vehicles.
That’s why an increasing number of manufacturers are experimenting with the technology, with Audi unveiling its own hydrogen car at the Detroit Motor Show. The h-tron quattro offers a staggering 372-mile range on a single tank of hydrogen and can speed from 0-60mph in less than 7 seconds. Better still, it takes less than four minutes to refuel.
In comparison, Tesla’s Model S offers 31 miles of range for every hour it’s connected to a 240-volt outlet. That’s a lifetime compared to the Audi h-tron quattro’s refuel time.
9. Smart home tech is coming to your car
There are several competing smart home platforms kicking around at the moment, including Apple HomeKit and Samsung’s SmartThings. But when it comes to the race to link your abode to your car, Amazon’s Alexa has taken an early lead.
Alexa is the voice-activated personal assistant that’s previously been confined to the ingenious Amazon Echo speaker. But pretty soon it’ll be released from its plastic cage and let loose on your motor. At CES, Ford bods were showing off its compatibility with the Sync 3 platform – meaning that in the near future you’ll be able to ask your Ford to open your garage door or put the heating on at home as you’re driving back from work. It’ll work the other way too: you’ll be able to tell your Echo to remotely find your car or start it up.
Your move, Siri.
10. And car showrooms are coming to the moon… sort of
Audi’s most eye-raising contribution to CES was its virtual reality showroom, where users could don a HTC Vive and check out a VR model of its latest cars.
This tech will arrive in every Audi showroom worldwide by the middle of this year, using an Oculus Rift instead in the majority of cases, and will enable you to check out scale models of any new Audi and plenty of its classics to boot.
The idea is that potential Audi owners will get a much better idea of any mods and localisations being made to their car in virtual reality than they will on a computer screen. Having tried the demo for ourselves, it’s hard to disagree – you’ll certainly get more out of it than Volvo’s XC90 experience for Google Cardboard.
Getting to crawl through a car’s engine is surprisingly immersive and you can even change the location of your demo from the top floor of a multi-storey car park to the moon. Obviously we did this at the first possible opportunity.
11. And keep an eye on these Chinese upstarts
Finally, it’s worth paying tribute to one of the most eye-raising stories to emerge from this year’s CES, namely the launch of Faraday Future’s ridiculous FFZERO1 concept car: an electric vehicle that can do 0-60 in less than 3 seconds. Somewhat inevitably, a lot of talk around this previously unheard of manufacturer centered around whether it was a front for Apple’s own electric ambitions.
That seems unlikely, but pretty much all we know about Farraday Future right now is that it’s a California-based company with a hefty amount of backing from funding from Chinese billionaire Jia Yueting. Crucially, it hasn’t actually manufactured a car for consumers yet. The same goes for similar Chinese disruptors Atieva and NextEV.
Still, if smartphones are anything to go by we’ll be seeing Chinese-backed electric cars making their way into the marketplace before too long, and doing so at very attractive prices. Sounds good to us.