Consumer Electronics Show 2015At CES 2015, the automotive juggernaut rolled in. BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz joined tech powerhouses Sony, LG and Samsung with big-budget stands boasting crowd-magnet appeal. 

This was the year the car world got connected to the tech world, and the Consumer Electronics Show will probably never be the same again.

Why the rush, when cars-in-tech-industry pioneer Ford was looked on with curious eyes when it first exhibited there eight years ago? Because just as our lives are connected, and we’re always on, and even our mums post Facebook updates about our grans having a better smartphone than our dads, so too must our cars catch up to the consumerisation of tech.

They’ve lagged for too long. For several years, journalists have stood round awkwardly while brand after brand has showcased the latest big thing, only to stumble and awkwardly reply ‘no’ when we ask them if it will actually do something we may find useful.

There’s thus been a lot of catching up to do. A lot of recruitment. A lot of opening whizzy new tech outposts in glittering Silicon Valley. But now the big boys are there. They get it. And boy, how they’ve worked out how to deliver it.

Self driving cars: the stars

Consumer Electronics Show 2015

Autonomous cars fully emerged from being lab test beds into being genuine future-focused concepts at CES 2015. The boldest example was the Mercedes-Benz F 015, CES’s very own concept car reveal.

Conventionally pretty it is not, but that’s not the point (phew). The fact it’s a moving living room is; Dr. Zetsche was there to explain his vision is cars as rooms from rooms, offering a moving haven of peace for lounging about in comfort while getting from A to B without even the need to do any driving if you don’t want to.

Completely different thinking to that in any car since Daimler invented it in the 19th Century, said Zetsche, and he’s probably right. Design it from the off as a luxe room on wheels and you’re bound to come up with something very different come production some time in the 2020s. The next-but-one S-Class? We’ll see.

Certainly Mercedes-Benz doesn’t have to worry too much about the self-driving tech itself. Tech boss Dr. Thomas Weber admitted to me two years ago that everything you need for a high level of autonomous driving is already present on the S-Class in showrooms today. Add on a few extra high-tech LiDAR lasers for 3D accuracy, and some deep level software to try and mimic the multiple decisions and adjustments a real driver constantly makes, and you can do what Audi did on the eve of CES 2015 and autonomously drive your A7 test bed from LA to Las Vegas with journalists on board and see your PR team live to tell the tale.

Audi’s clearly making fast progress with autonomous drive. It wouldn’t constantly be going so public about it if it weren’t. At CES 2015, it showed the Prologue concept again, this time with a new paint job, a new 690hp 4.0-litre V8 hybrid engine and a new acronym – piloted drive. Will the posh coupe version of the next A8 it’s said to preview thus launch with as much self-drive functionality as the law currently offers built in?

Indeed, is Audi’s very public demonstrations of piloted drive an attempt to speed up the legal changes necessary to make fully automated cars roadworthy? Who knows, the positive buzz created by its CES stunt may be more significant than we think…

Canny BMW took another route. Recognising many are still up in arms over cars generally driving themselves, the maker of the ultimate driving machine showed an i3 that autonomously drives somewhere few would have issue with – in the car park.

Drive up to the exit, get out and swipe a smart watch to send it on its way. As you return, tap the smart watch and it’ll scurry back to meet you by the time you arrive. No more smelly stairwells, dizzying games of hunt-the-space or the very real threat of walking to your car on dark wintry nights. It’s an example of why autonomous driving is a good thing – and, judging by the response at CES, is helping a lot of naysayers start to see the logic.

See, autonomous driving will still ultimately be a driver aid. Google may think otherwise, but cars aren’t going to become totally self-driving, not for many decades. Mapping the world’s networks alone to the necessary degree would take that long. Ford’s own CTO Raj Nair told CES delegates in a keynote that full automation will only happen where HD mapping is available and the environmental conditions are favourable for the sensors. Outside of that will be increasing semi-automation, but still with the driver at its core.

But if a self-driving car can assist me to do the boring bit on a motorway while I check emails and send tweets, keeping a parental watchful eye every so often, then let me take over on the fun twisty bit at the end, then I’d have one tomorrow. That’s what people started to realise at CES 2015.

Smart connectivity, at last

Consumer Electronics Show 2015

What do you want if you plug your smartphone into the car? To be able to access the cool stuff on it in a clear and easy way through the dash controls. Finally, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto give car makers the platform to deliver this. Finally, we have a consistent cross-brand approach. And none of the ugly hacks car makers tried out to try, and fail, to deliver a link to the newfangled smartphone everyone now carries.

It’s been an illustration of how the car world and the tech world move at such different speeds and, to car makers’ credit, they’ve been as frustrated as the rest of us. They’ve been beavering away developing the new devise-agnostic platforms for a while now but are finally there and, at CES 2015, finally able to let visitors try out production-ready systems by plugging in their own smartphones and having a play.

They’re even starting to become tech pioneers themselves. Many are trying to figure out the point of a smart watch; BMW thinks it already knows – it’s a device to summon your autonomous car, it’s a way of displaying smart intermodal navigation for genuine door-to-door guidance – and Hyundai is having a go too; driver assistance functionality via buzzes and vibrations, anyone?

Indeed, so eagerly did some car makers embrace the smart watch, it was indeed just like being in one of the other CES halls. The cars were just eye candy; nobody was really concentrating on them.

The tech easter eggs

Audi Tablet

And then there’s all the high tech stuff that you fall in love with. The really smart brands had this in spades. BMW’s intelligent laser lights, for example. Because it reckons simple laser lights are not beyond cool enough, now it has intelligent laser lights, which can see round corners, light the road ahead up to 0.6km, even change their beam to a special narrow pattern exactly the width of the narrow road restriction they detect up ahead. Oh, and shine a visual alert symbol onto the road just for good measure.

And with all the tech brands banging on about OLED displays, BMW ensured it could play the buzzword too: an M car is to get OLED rear lamps within 18 months, with cooler lighting patters and more striking displays. The firm even invested a tidy six-figure sum into a dedicated action arena hall with a BMW light show to demonstrate all this. Truly dazzling.

Audi ensured cross-show appeal with its very own tablet computer debut. The Audi Tablet is an automotive-specific, custom-built Android-based tablet Audi’s crafted specifically for the car; it replaces the old rear seat entertainment system and boasts specifics such as a low-glare display, weighty premium construction and automotive-grade crash worthiness (and it has the video to show the difference between a crash test dummy impacting on this and impacting an Apple iPad – think safety v shattered glass…). Buy it on the Q7 from year end (and, yes, it will work in the home too).

Volkswagen’s ‘glass’ cabin in the Golf R Touch was significant too. One of the world’s best selling cars getting a fully digital cabin, with three colour touchscreen replacing virtually every button and knob? What’s more, people falling in love with it? The sheer fact it lets you customise a Golf interior with the same finesse you do your smartphone wallpaper, could be a big part of it. This was a Golf with the wow factor of a Tesla and for some it can’t come soon enough.

There were some duds. Fiat-Chrysler was showing its new Uconnect system which doesn’t seem to do anything any number of rival systems already offer, and it made no effort to try and point out why it is cool. A clever supplier has clearly rolled out conductive charging to all brands and the fight was on to see who could make propriety tech interesting (none succeeded). And gesture control might be really cool but, again, car makers have rushed in to demonstrate it without actually thinking about how it could be useful. An old-school tech stumble; back to the whizzy new production-ready smartphone stereos…

Roundup: CES 2015

BMW M4 Concept Iconic Lights

Just as with Vegas itself, where even from a distance you have no doubt what it’s all about from the multitude of casinos and hotels you can see in the distance, so too did CES 2015 leave you in little doubt where the focus had shifted. Outside, it was all cars, be they car parks full of BMWs, registration centres surrounded by Audis or simply Ford best-sellers surreptitiously placed next to must-use mobile device recharging stations. Yes, cars have truly arrived in tech.

But it’s a warm welcome. For too long they weren’t but now car brands are delivering the features that the tech world respects, can work with, can partner with. The relationship is blossoming. And it can only accelerate from here.

Finally they’re on the same page. From now on, expect all the tech you use outside the car to increasingly seamlessly start to integrate into it, and make all the time you spend in the car correspondingly more productive, enjoyable and connected.

No gamble needed: it’s an odds-on win.