What to know about the cars of the future being built by tech, auto companies

Drivers can expect more electric cars and autonomous features to hit the market in the next few years as car makers go high-tech and tech industry giants like Google and Amazon branch further into automotives.

Those trends were on full display at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show with companies from Sony to BMW, and even the United States Postal Service, showing off electric vehicles and digital features the companies say improve safety and add entertainment value. 

“Not to disparage smartphones or anything else, but automotive is really the place where it’s at right now,” Patrick Brady, vice president of automotive at Google, said during a CES panel. 

Cars are offering opportunities for innovation where software and artificial intelligence (AI) “really come together in one,” he said.

But the additional bells and whistles may come at a price for drivers — in both money and privacy. Users could see a growing trend in paid subscriptions to access the new tech. And the advances may give rise to data privacy concerns similar to those that have surrounded smartphone and computer advancements.

Companies may also run into traditional tech regulatory challenges in their efforts to introduce the new features.

Here is what to know about the advancements being made, as well as their potential drawbacks and obstacles they could be facing. 

The rise of the connected car

During CES several major tech companies highlighted smart features they’ve developed for cars, updating systems to be more personalized for drivers. 

Google, for instance, highlighted its Android Auto feature, which allows users to connect an Android phone to their car display. The feature had a design revamp that aimed to prioritize three driver goals: navigation, communication and audio entertainment. It also uses Google Assistant to make suggestions, such as missed call reminders, and provides on-screen shortcuts to reply to messages or call favorite contacts. 

Amazon, meanwhile, unveiled a feature for its virtual assistant Alexa that allows people with an Alexa-enabled vehicle or Alexa auto accessory to ask Alexa to “find an EV charging station near me.”

Stellantis, the automaker behind brands including Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep, estimates it will reach 34 million connected vehicles by the end of the decade. 

The company already hosts a suite of connected vehicle features, offered through packages by monthly subscriptions. For example, drivers can pay for internet access in vehicles under Stellantis brands for a monthly fee at market prices set by data providers. Stellantis and data providers share revenue from the deal, but Stellantis does not disclose what portion of the monthly rates it receives. 

Stellantis is also diving further into the data and connected services market by launching a new unit called Mobilisights, announced at CES. Mobilisights will have exclusive access and rights to license vehicles and related data from all Stellantis brands to external customers such as private enterprises, public-sector utilities and research institutions. 

“Harnessed effectively, sensor and other data available from connected vehicles can enable a wide range of services and applications with compelling benefits, ranging from personalized usage-based insurance to road hazard detection and traffic management,” Mobilisights CEO Sanjiv Ghate said in a statement.

Data privacy concerns amplified 

For privacy advocates, though, the introduction of new sensors and data collecting technologies into cars magnifies concerns about how information such as real-time location or biometric data is collected and used. 

A group of nearly two dozen tech advocacy groups, led by Demand Progress, sent a letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Wednesday arguing that data collected by tech companies as they expand into the automotive industry can be used both to “consolidate their position of market advantage” and in “other ways that verge on the dystopian.”

Brady, the Google executive, addressed concerns about data privacy and how companies will comply with new regulations intended to protect user information while speaking at CES. Brady said companies need to work to create a “balanced” experience that can give users control over how their data is used or acquired without introducing transparency methods that are intrusive for drivers, like having red lights flash to show data is being accessed. 

“If you don’t do it right, you actually lose the value of transparency and control because consumers will just start ignoring it. I think we need to solve that together,” Brady said.

Tech companies have been facing a rising number of laws meant to protect data privacy around the world. Several countries and international bodies have implemented sweeping data privacy laws in recent years, such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. 

The U.S., meanwhile, has lagged behind those global counterparts and has not yet passed a comprehensive data privacy law. States have instead created a patchwork of varying data privacy laws of their own in a way that the tech industry broadly argues makes it hard for companies to cooperate. 

When it comes to vehicles, which by nature take drivers from one place to another, concerns about how laws apply when users cross state lines may be even more prominent.

The advocates pleading to the FTC and DOJ don’t trust tech giants to be in the driver’s seat to make decisions on those questions. 

In their letter to regulators, the advocacy groups said “these corporate giants have already shown that in every industry, they are committed to dominating at any cost: they will ignore plain-language laws and regulations designed to protect competition, circumvent consumer privacy laws, and use their considerable market weight to disadvantage smaller competitors.” 

The groups urged the regulators to “redouble” their efforts to ensure laws and regulations are enforced to maintain a “healthy and competitive marketplace in the sector.” 

Autonomous features seek to improve safety 

Beyond connected vehicle features, other tech brands displayed autonomous vehicle technology that aims to improve driver safety at CES.

Luminar, a company that uses lidar, or light detection and ranging technology, for its autonomous features, showcased its automatic stopping feature in tests against cars equipped with competing technology. 

In a test drive at the show, a car equipped with Luminar’s technology stopped in front of a dummy of a child on the road, while a Tesla going the same speed on the roadway hit the dummy. 

Entertainment features bringing color — and karaoke! — to cars

Other companies highlighted entertainment and aesthetic auto tech during CES. 

Sony and Honda unveiled their new electric vehicle prototype called Afeela at the show. The car features a narrow display screen Sony called a media bar that can light up with different colors or images, or let drivers share messages like the car’s battery level or the current weather to interact with others outside of the vehicle. During the unveiling of the prototype, an ad for the movie Spider-Man: No Way Home briefly flashed on the bar, raising questions about whether Sony also plans to use the media bar as forms of advertising on the cars. 

BMW also revealed a color-changing car called i Vision Dee, with “Dee” standing for “Digital Emotional Experience,” that can change its exterior in up to 32 colors. The year before, BMW showcased a version that could alternate between black and white. 

Beyond name brand tech firms, the Singing Machine, the company behind a wide range of karaoke machines, is launching the first car karaoke system. Outside of the separate microphone, the company is speaking with car manufacturers about integrating the system to provide a screen with lyrics and connection to a car’s audio system into vehicles.

Tags CES consumer electronics show
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