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CES 2014: Playing With Some Up-And-Coming Car Features

If you've kept tabs on your RSS feed, highlights from this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas may have included curved televisions, T-Mobile's CEO crashing a private AT&T event, and blockbuster director Michael Bay showing his subpar teleprompter chops during a Samsung press conference. You've likely already heard about BMW's drift-correcting autonomous car and Chevrolet's new in-car video capture device for the 2014 Corvette Stingray, for that matter. Still, we scouted the CES floor to play with some of the latest announcements and technologies crafted for the automotive world. Here's a quick recap.

2015 Audi TT Interior

The third-generation Audi TT won't debut until later this year, but Audi did at least send a functional seating buck to Las Vegas for CES attendees to play with. The stylized, simplified dashboard is not only attractive, but in keeping with the sparse, Teutonic design used on the first-generation TT. The piano-key switchgear is minimal and easy to reach, while the turbine-styled climate vents aren't only interesting cosmetic details - they also contain controls for heated seat surfaces and digital displays for the climate system.

The true centerpiece of the cockpit, however, is the gauge cluster. Audi is in the process of introducing an updated MMI infotainment system, complete with a simplified menu structure and controller interface, in most of its model lines, but it opted instead to integrate MMI into the 2015 TT's gauge cluster. As such, the driver is presented with a large 12.3-inch LCD screen in lieu of a proper gauge cluster. In fact, the only two physical gauges present are

Audi's MMI system has a reputation for being quick, easy to use, and filled with vibrant graphics. The 2015 TT's gauge cluster is no different - nor should it be, considering it uses the same Nvidia video processor as the stand-alone MMI. The major difference is this display incorporates a speedometer and tachometer into the display, which can in turn be sized to suit the driver's tastes.

Is this the shape of future Audi gauge clusters to come? It depends on which future Audi you're interested in. An Audi representative indicated this in-cluster infotainment approach was best suited for its "sporty cars" like the TT, but its luxury-oriented sedans - where there's a greater need to provide visibility and control to additional passengers - will likely continue to have the MMI system placed in the center of the dash.

In other words, there's a much greater chance of this appearing in a next-generation R8 than in a next-generation A8.

Mercedes-Benz App-A-Palooza

Mercedes-Benz would love to remind you it already offers partial autonomous assist functions built into its 2014 E-Class and S-Class sedans, but the automaker dedicated most of its CES booth to talking up several new connectivity functions it hopes to launch over the next year or so.

First: the Mercedes-Benz Apps themselves. Though a dozen or so in-car apps are already available for use, including weather data, Google Maps and Streetview, Facebook connectivity, and so on, the most interesting application is the new Digital Drivestyle app. Load it on a smartphone and connect the phone to your Benz by way of a specialized cable, and you suddenly have access to dozens of features, including Web-based radio stations, Google POI search functions, Google + social integration, and Car-To-X connectivity. One neat function: the ability to receive real-time accident reports, along with the ability to share traffic snafus with other DDA users. By spring, the system will also incorporate connectivity with Nest's smart thermostat - tell the car you're heading home, and it'll let your thermostat know your estimated time of arrival and plan appropriate heating/ cooling accordingly.

If you're into integration with avant-garde gizmos, you'll like where Mercedes-Benz is looking to take this system in the future. Benz is working to integrate smart watches like the Pebble or the Samsung Galaxy Gear with the app and vehicle, allowing the devices to function as remote keyfobs and monitor vehicle conditions in realtime. Mercedes-Benz is also working with Google to integrate the wearable Google Glass computer with the car's systems. For instance, a user can start a navigation route on the Glass while on foot, and transfer the route to the car's navigation system once he or she has entered the vehicle.

Kia Uvo

Kia's infotainment system has come a long way from its earliest Microsoft-based form, which debuted in 2010. The latest iteration, which is based off the Android operating system, debuted in the 2014 Kia Soul - but the automaker already has a few new tweaks for the system. A Pandora Web-based audio app is now available, as is a Soundhound app, which works to identify a particular piece of music being played on the radio. iHeart Radio will also be available in some 2015 Kia models, as will the integration of Yelp reviews and ratings into POI search functions.

Facebook junkies may enjoy three new Uvo applications tied to the social media juggernaut. A Social Music application lets you see what songs your friends are listening to, listen to their soundtracks, and share your own playlists. A local info function helps provide local POI data and reviews, while a path-tagging app allows drivers to document and share their journeys on Facebook.

Kia's new Soul EV electric vehicle will also boast an EV Services screen in UVO, which provides data on range, consumption, and locations of nearby charging stations. Drivers can also set charge times and program climate control pre-conditioning functions. Many of these same features are also remotely accessible by way of a matched smartphone app.

Kia Next-Gen Uvo Concepts

We wondered why Kia chose CES to mark the North American debut of the Cub concept until we stumbled upon a mock-up for the User-centered Driver Concept, which incorporates many of the same future technologies showcased in the Cub itself.

The driver faces both a wide-screen, full-color heads-up display and a 12.3-inch 3D TFT LCD gauge cluster, which uses eye-tracking technology to allow the cluster to be viewed at any angle. Biometric sensors embedded in the steering wheel not only monitor the driver's physical condition, but also theoretically provide a means to start/stop the vehicle without using a key. A wireless charging pad for smartphones rests in the center console, but that pales in comparison to a "gesture camera" mounted just below the dashboard, which translates hand movements into commands for the infotainment system. A neat idea, though it presently lacks the finesse of a physical controller or touchpad.

We were more impressed with Kia's In-Vehicle Infotainment concept mockup, which essentially seeks to convert the car's instrument panel into a massive tablet computer. Most of the center stack would be replaced by a 19.1-inch touchscreen display. That's mighty big - so big, that Kia thinks a secondary touchscreen placed in the center console will save drivers from leaning all the way over for controls.

Many of the proposed functions - namely social music services, route logging, and so on - are already implemented within Kia's UVO system, but this concept goes several steps further. Want to download PDF documents to view on your dashboard? No problem. Want your car to automatically pull appointments from your Google calendar and calculate routes to your next stop? Kia's concept says its feasible, as is all sorts of advanced vehicle to vehicle communication functions, social media connectivity, and audio/visual flexibility.

We're not sure if we're ready for dashboards to turn into a Microsoft Surface, but some of these connective functions would surely be welcome - and not entirely outside the realm of existing technologies.

Pioneer Rear-View Mirror Concepts

Pioneer's bread and butter lies with aftermarket car audio components, but judging by these rear-view mirror concepts, it may soon take a step into a bit of infotainment whitespace. Designed to replace your existing mirror, Pioneer's nameless concept device incorporates several functions. Bluetooth phone connectivity, along with hands-free voice commands, is almost a given, but hidden beneath the glass surface is a large, vibrant LCD screen, which displays maps and navigation commands provided by a linked smartphone. If that isn't slick enough, a forward-facing camera placed on the backside of the mirror can theoretically provide lane-departure warnings to the driver.

The device carries no formal name or even an estimated price point at this time, but Pioneer reps suggest if reaction is positive, it could be on the market as early as next year. If so, drivers seeking to add some modern navigation, safety, and connectivity features to their late-model automobile may only need to replace a rear-view mirror.

Kenwood Aftermarket Integration

As more and more automakers incorporate key functions -- like climate controls, for instance - into their stock audio head units, a problem arises should an owner decide to install an aftermarket sound system: how do you retain that essential functionality? Previous solutions have included install kits with redundant hard buttons or touchscreen controllers, but Kenwood's i-Datalink Maestro offers a neater solution. When the Maestro interface box is installed in conjunction with a Kenwood touch-screen receiver, climate controls are simply rendered on the Kenwood's screen. Better yet, the Maestro system also allows for factory-installed audio sources, including USB audio inputs and satellite radio tuners, to be retained and integrated into the system.

Presently, the i-Datalink Maestro is offered for Ford and GM vehicles, but Kenwood plans on expanding its functionality to Dodge and Chrysler vehicles by the end of 2014.

Other Wild Whips

It wouldn't be a Vegas-based trade show without some wild sheetmetal on display, and Vegas was no different. Camera manufacturer GoPro seemed to have everyone beat by showing the same carbon-fiber Pagani Huayra it displayed at last year's SEMA show, but Monster Audio stole the spotlight later that afternoon by showing off a custom $50,000 audio system installed in a $4 million Lamborghini Veneno Roadster - one of nine slated for production. Both supercars were a far cry from the car parked at the Crosley audio booth: a 1939 Crosley roadster.