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The 4 Most Significant Cars of CES 2015

Automotive highlights from the tech show in Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS -- When Ford CEO Alan Mulally gave a keynote speech at the 2007 Consumer Electronic Show (CES), the car industry finally awoke to the fact that the world of the automobile was in the midst of a creative disruption by the world of electronics. It also awoke those who attend CES that the show could be more than just 38 football fields of display space full of iPhone covers from Taiwan.

At the 2015 CES, there are more than a dozen cars on display from various manufacturers, from concepts like the autonomous Mercedes-Benz F 015 "Luxury in Motion" concept car to the impending 2016 Toyota Mirai fuel-cell vehicle. Numerous suppliers also are promoting the electronic hardware that will appear in a car you'll be buying soon, from new navigation systems to electronic display screens with more pixels.

Of course, there is also something about CES that reduces the automobile to an app, gizmo, or entertainment device, and there's always the temptation to think of the car as a really, really fancy television. Fortunately some carmakers understand that CES is a place to show off serious thinking about the automobile and its daily mission of carrying passengers and cargo. Here are a handful of examples.

Audi A7 Sportback Piloted-Driving Concept

Audi undertook a long-distance test of autonomous driving by sending a specially equipped Audi A7 Sportback 3.0 TFSI some 560 miles to CES in Las Vegas from the company's Silicon Valley outpost in the San Francisco Bay Area. Because such real-world testing is not legal in Germany, this was the car's first exposure to everyday driving conditions, although a similar test car undertook high-speed testing at the Hockenheim racing circuit last October.

While the car carried five passengers who rotated as drivers (each certified as an Audi test driver because of legal requirements), the car's autonomous system requested that they intervene for less than 5 percent of the driving distance. The A7 Sportback piloted concept (nicknamed "Jack") relies on a super-computer-caliber ECU to process information from an extensive array of cameras, laser scanners and radar sensors to accomplish this feat, a different strategy than the mapping-based technology employed by Mercedes-Benz and Nissan.

Audi's chief technology offer Ulrich Hackenberg tells us, "This is not just a concept car; it is a real car with technology that will appear in the next Audi A8 that will arrive in Germany the year after next." We understand that this car will incorporate a city-type version of the system meant for low-speed situations. As Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America, points out, "Just as with other technologies, there will not be a sudden adoption of autonomous driving technology. It will roll out gradually and drivers will adapt. People are already embracing our adaptive cruise control, which is part of our concept."

Some questions remain about navigating such autonomous driving technology through the legal landscape, but Ricky Hudi, Audi's executive vice president for electronic development, says he is sure the obstacles will be overcome. The reason? "It will save lives," he says.

2016 Chevrolet Volt With More Range, Less Weight

Even with cheap gasoline flowing like water, more consumers these days are sparked with enthusiasm for the concept of electricity. So it's no wonder that General Motors chose CES for a preview of the 2016 Chevrolet Volt. EVs are cars for enthusiasts, just like anything else.

As previously announced, the key to the 2016 Volt is more than new sheetmetal. The entire powertrain is new, including the two-motor drive unit, battery, range-extending gas engine and even the electronics.

The new motor unit is 100 pounds lighter than the outgoing model's and is 5 percent to 12 percent more efficient, depending on the circumstances. The battery has 20 percent more capacity yet weighs 30 pounds less. And the range-extending four-cylinder engine now has a displacement of 1.5 liters, delivering more power with less noise. It all adds up to quicker EV acceleration, extended EV range, and more refined long-distance motoring.

1,000-hp Renovo Motors Coupe

Although previewed at the Pebble Beach concours last summer, the Renovo Motors Coupe will be seen by a far greater audience at 2015 CES. And who would not be attracted to an EV that looks like a Shelby Daytona Coupe? Back in 2010, Christopher Heiser and Jason Stinson had a vision of an EV that looked like fun, not like a science project. As Heiser tells us, "I had that poster of the wine bottle, woman and Ferrari on the wall of my bedroom, and I wanted an electric vehicle that you could imagine in the same poster."

Renovo Motors has engineered a unique powertrain to deliver the performance of which dreams are made, a twin-motor unit that makes some 500 hp and 1,000 lb-ft of torque and ramps up to full power in 37 milliseconds. We've had a quick ride in the Renovo Coupe, and it'll definitely tear your head off as it accelerates to 60 mph in a claimed 3.4 seconds.

Of equal interest here is the use of a kit car as the wrapper for this powertrain. It enables the Renovo engineers to skip all the fussy car things that are incredibly difficult and time consuming, as Tesla has learned much to its despair. The result is a lightweight 3,250-pound package with its three battery packs positioned to enhance the driving experience instead of hurt it. At the same time, the Renovo Motors Coupe is more like a toy, a Ferrari-style EV rather than a BMW i-style EV, so we'll see how the market responds.

Volkswagen Golf R Touch Navigates the Future

You're right, the Volkswagen Golf R Touch does seem like it's just a really, really fancy television, since it's all about big electronic screens in the dash. Actually what we have here is a 12.8-inch infotainment display that responds to gesture control, an 8.0-inch control interface with haptic feedback, and a 12.3-inch instrument display. It's a pretty strong statement from an automaker that still fails to give you a convenient place to plug in your USB drive.

But once you get past the lights and flashes, the Golf R Touch makes the point that VW has chosen the touchscreen as its interface for the future. Touchscreen gesture control and haptic feedback reduce driver distraction. The touchscreen also adapts easily to the broad range of electronic operating systems and languages that must be serviced by Volkswagen products.

Volkswagen also acknowledges that touchscreen displays help it adapt to the smartphone-based applications (especially navigation) that customers of its entry-level products prefer. At the same time, VW believes that there will continue to be a market for elaborate navigation applications from the carmakers, because premium car-buyers prefer more sophisticated features like voice recognition.