Rich Warren: Car guys brought biggest news to CES
The popular press morphed the International Consumer Electronics Show that occupied Las Vegas last week into the "gadget show."
That's rather humbling for one of world's most important trade shows. When I began covering CES in 1976, the mainstream press couldn't be bothered to report on it. Even during the years CES occurred in Chicago, the local papers barely gave it lip service.
Now it's hard to escape reportage on the show, usually focused on its silliest products, rather than significant innovations. When print journalists were subjugated to online bloggers about half a dozen years ago, I ceased rubbing shoulders with the other 150,000 attendees.
In 1980, about 50 journalists would attend CES news conferences. This year it's not extraordinary for 1,000 writers, broadcasters and bloggers to try to cram in. I wish my former brethren well and will keep you informed from reading their reports.
The big news at this year's CES won't fit in your pocket. The automobile companies decided to use CES as their venue for automotive innovations. Ford made the first splash with a new breed of electric hybrid — but a very impractical one for most people who garage their cars.
The C-Max Solar Energy Concept incorporates solar panels on its roof, but by themselves these panels fail to convert enough sunlight to make a noticeable difference in the range of the car on electric power. So Ford provides a special carport with a Fresnel lens that focuses sunlight on the solar panels when the car is parked, providing a similar amount of charging to plugging it into the AC grid. It covers the same 620-mile range as the existing C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid.
A more practical development comes from GM and AT&T (ironically, once the largest behemoths in corporate America). The two teamed up to offer built-in 4G cellular service in vehicles. This permits selecting your car as one of the smart devices in your cellular plan, with or without a smart phone.
Neither company announced pricing, but you can assume it will vacuum your pockets. This opens a whole array of functionality and features built into the car, including the eventual abandonment of the venerable car radio in favor of Internet music services.
Toyota displayed its hydrogen-powered car — moving its arrival date in the United States to next year, rather than two years from now. The Camry-sized car will drive about 300 miles on a tank of hydrogen. My hybrid Camry easily covers 550 miles on a single tank of gas. The current loaded Camry hybrid costs about $30,000, whereas the new hydrogen version will cost at least $50,000 and probably more.
Furthermore, the all-electric Tesla offers more charging stations throughout the country than there are hydrogen fueling stations, and will still have more next year.
In more practical automotive technology, Google scored big by announcing a partnership among Audi, GM, Honda, Hyundai and chip manufacturer Nvidia to create an Android chip for near-future cars. This is a no-brainer.
You can bet Apple is negotiating with the nameplates not listed here, such as Ford, Nissan and Chrysler/Fiat.
While competition is a good thing, we could have nonuniversal cars, meaning you would have to learn different operating systems to operate competing brands of cars. Right now once you learn to drive a car, all basic functions are the same; only secondary features vary. Imagine having to learn an operating system to even start the car.
Rather than use an electronic key fob, you'll start your car using your smart phone or tablet. That also offers car thieves an entirely new avenue for theft and/or malicious mischief. Even today's relatively primitive electronics can be externally hacked by computer miscreants.
Next week we'll report on the more conventional electronic products debuting at CES. I fear when they announce the ultimate android, which used to mean human-like robot, that can write this column.
Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at email@example.com.