Forget Horsepower, Americans Buy Cars for the Technology

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The Volkswagen Budd-E is a living room on wheels, anticipating the age of self-driving cars. Passengers will have their eyes on a big screen, not on the road. . (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

LAS VEGAS—What do car buyers want? Rachelle Petusky, Autotrader research analyst, told me at the company’s Consumer Electronics Show press conference that they want gadgets.

“Technology is becoming the number one driver in making or breaking the purchasing decision,” she said. “Back-up cameras and adaptive cruise control have become mainstream things.” She told me that people are willing to pay up to $1,400 for features they particularly like.

identical twins
Identical twins run a booth at CES. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

The stats on this are interesting. According to Autotrader, 70 percent of consumers are more likely to consider vehicles with self-driving features than in years past. I liked this one: “47 percent of consumers surveyed said they would sync their vehicle with their smart watch if they owned a smart watch.” And 77 percent say that technology must-haves are more important than color. Ted Cardenas of Pioneer confirmed this one for me. When shopping for a 2012 Toyota minivan, his family gave up the white color they wanted because the black one had rear-seat entertainment.

Bosch car
Bosch's "car" was a platform for amazing tech, including a flat glass screen that gave the illusion of push buttons. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

This kind of thinking was everywhere at CES. Countless people told me that the tail is wagging the dog; cars are becoming “mobile platforms for electronic systems.” That’s why CES — ostensibly about cellphones and computers — has been taken over by automakers. This year was a record, with stands from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Chevrolet, Volkswagen, Kia, Lexus and more. And Tier One auto suppliers like Bosch and Delphi were also out in force.

VW Budd-E
The Budd-E is an electric successor to the Microbus, but it also anticipates drivers with leisure time. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

I saw it on the Volkswagen stand, where the Budd-e, an electric successor to the famous Microbus was debuted. I’ve been waiting for this one a long time. Despite the fact that VW wouldn’t let me get too near it, I could see clearly enough that the rear seat had a novel wraparound bench seat and a giant screen where the rear window would be. Once we were drivers; now we’re in a rear-seat living room watching TV.

Dr. Andreas Titze, head of development electronics architecture and networks at VW, said the Budd-E concept is “the first of a purely electric product line” from the company, and it sits on a modular platform that could incorporate many other body styles. My guess is that the rear screen won’t survive if some version of this car makes it into production — at least not yet, but it’s coming.

BMW Vision Fuure Interaction
BMW's Vision Future Interaction has a steering wheel that glows blue when the driver is in control; red when the car drives itself. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

BMW also showed a version of the i8 (minus the roof and doors!) called the Vision Future Interaction that showcases the age of autonomous driving.

We won’t be driving fully self-driving cars for a decade or more, but automakers are sure thinking a lot about them. The BMW Interactive offered three modes — pure driving, assist and auto — not as in automatic transmission but as in auto pilot. If the car sees an accident ahead, it signals a warning and gives the driver seven seconds to take command. The steering wheel glows blue when the driver is in control; red when the car is.

Vegas certainly loves car culture. Check out the red Corvette. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

I visited with Nuance, which makes voice controls and other technology for major automakers. The system they demonstrated for me was natural speech — another buzz phrase around CES this year — in an incredibly intuitive way. They’ve finally developed voice commands I’d actually use.

Nuance voice commands
Nuance showed intuitive voice control, but when distraction is no longer an issue, will we use it to entertain ourselves?. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Pavan Mathew, a senior director for mobile at Nuance, showed me that you could tell the system, “Take me to the Dallas Cowboys stadium in Dallas,” and it routes you to the actual place — the AT&T; park in Arlington. Simply say “play Mingus” and it knows you want the brilliant jazz musician Charles Mingus.

We need voice commands to not get distracted running the must-have electronics on our cars. But that’s now. In a self-driving environment, driver distraction won’t be an issue — there’s no driver! But we’ll still be using a lot of voice commands, because we’ll have more time to play with the systems in our mobile electronic environments.

Westgate Theater hosted an interesting panel on the future of urban mobility. Kent Larson, an MIT professor, took us on a history of cities, from livable circles of human habitation to the current gridlocked reality of what he called “low-density auto-centric sprawl.” (Las Vegas these days certainly bears that one out; it takes half an hour or more to go three miles.)

Anthony Foxx
Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx is the former Mayor of Charlotte. He's got urban mobility on his mind. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Autonomous cars have the potential to reduce congestion by intelligently managing traffic flow, but it’s going to be a while before we benefit from that. In the meantime, we’re looking for interim solutions. Consider the ugly reality: We crawl along in high-tech showpieces capable of 150 mph, at slower speeds than the average commuter in 1940.

Maybe Anthony Foxx has a solution. He’s the former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, and the current Secretary of Transportation, and he was on the CES panel. “With the Smart City Challenge, we’re asking cities to think out of the box,” he said. And there’s a pot of gold for the city with the best transportation ideas — some $40 million. Foxx noted that cities don’t actually lack ideas; they’re instead short on the revenue to implement them.

Here’s more on the challenge: