The Coolest Car Tech We Saw At CES 2015

Wearables and gesture controls are dazzling, but the most useful automotive innovations at CES are far more practical.

Automakers invaded the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with a record 10 manufacturers showing off wares. Among the innovations showcased were smart watches that unlock doors and gesture controls that recognize hand movement. Such technology dazzles, but the most useful advancements were far more practical. One of them was General Motor's OnStar Driver Assurance system, which predicts when engine parts might fail. Another, BMW's i Connected Mobility suite, lets users plan trips at home on their smart TV. Browse the best car tech we saw at CES in this gallery.

Popular Science is covering the coolest, most futuristic, and strangest gadgets and technologies at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Catch our complete CES 2015 coverage all week long.

2016 Audi Q7 dashboard
Audi Virtual Cockpit And MMI
Volkswagen’s new gesture controls in the Golf R Touch got our attention, but it was the German automaker’s luxury division, Audi, that impressed even more with its “virtual cockpit” and Multi-Media Interface, or MMI. Unlike touchless gesture controls, which are purely conceptual at this point, Audi’s latest setup is for real: It debuts this year on the all-new 2016 Q7. The car will feature lifelike 3-D graphics powered by Nvidia on two high-resolution screens, with one behind the steering wheel that is customizable. A large touchpad with eight programmable buttons on the center console make inputting addresses and accessing menus easier. Google Voice recognizes natural speech commands for placing calls or choosing song titles. The clincher is an optional rear entrainment system that features two HD tablets, both of which can be used outside the vehicle, just like an iPad.Audi
BMW i3 Smart Watch App
BMW i Connected Mobility
BMW is showing a level of foresight beyond most other automakers regarding the future of personal transportation. Its i Connected Mobility suite of products already allows owners of the BMW i3 electric vehicle to incorporate public transportation into their travel itinerary. With BMW’s i Remote App for Android, users can access the best route, be it by car, bus or train, on a smart watch or smart phone. What’s new this year: a car-finder app that locates one’s vehicle in a parking lot or garage. But the most impressive addition is the incorporation of smart TV functionality. This allows users to plan trips at home using a digital calendar from a smart phone or personal computer, or from smart TV itself. BMW’s cloud-based servers calculate the best routes to take, including on foot to the nearest parking lot or bus stop. The system will also reconcile travel time between two appointments at different locations. It even learns which types of transport the user prefers. Everything is synced to the cloud, so users can access itineraries and directions via their Internet-connected smart TV, vehicle dashboard screen, smart phone, or smart watch.BMW
Ford Sync 3 screen shot
Ford Sync 3
Ford has experienced nothing but problems with its Microsoft-based Sync infotainment system since it launched in 2007. Complaints from consumers and the press harped on its unintuitive layout, sluggish performance, and intermittent crashes (I even got a black screen of death with the words “Microsoft rebooting” on a Ford Explorer test vehicle a few years back). Ford has finally ditched Microsoft in favor of BlackBerry’s QNX platform. Demo units on the show floor at CES 2015 were snappy in operation and more intuitive in layout, with simple tiles similar to those on a cell phone or tablet for key functions like climate control, stereo, and navigation. The graphics aren’t as sophisticated looking as before, but overall, Sync 3 appears to be an improvement over its predecessor.Ford
Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion interior
Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion
Mercedes calls this autonomous concept car a “forerunner of a mobility revolution.” Considering that many of its current vehicles are already partially autonomous, with technology like adaptive cruise control, which can brake and accelerate the car automatically, we don’t doubt the German automaker’s claim. The F 015 is one vision of what fully autonomous cars could be. The interior is set up more like a lounge than a cockpit, with seats that swivel to face inward. The car can be driven manually as well, in which case the steering wheel extends from the dashboard. The carbon-fiber composite, aluminum and high-strength steel body is unique in that it doesn’t have a support pillar between the front and rear doors. This allows wide-open access to the interior. To aid crash protection, the exterior panels feature airbags that inflate outward. The propulsion system is a hydrogen fuel cell. Unlike many concept cars, this one’s fully functional, with Mercedes’ current cameras, lasers and other sensors giving it a 360-degree view of the world around it. Mercedes is not saying when a car like the F 015 would make it to production, but still, it’s only a matter of “when,” not “if.”Mercedes-Benz
OnStar Driver Assurance image
OnStar Driver Assurance
General Motor's telematics subsidiary OnStar announced a suite of new features enabled by 4G LTE connectivity. The most compelling one, called OnStar Driver Assurance, predicts when certain engine parts might fail and warns drivers so they can get them fixed or replaced before problems occur. Sensors in the vehicle track how the parts are performing. That data is then uploaded to OnStar's cloud-based servers and run through algorithms that assess the parts' condition. If it appears there's a problem with one of the parts, drivers get notified via email, text, in-vehicle alerts, or through the OnStar RemoteLink smartphone app. Owners must enroll their vehicle and opt in to the program. The technology will focus on the battery, starter motor and fuel pump initially, all of which are critical to starting a vehicle and keeping it running. OnStar Driver Assurance is expected to debut on some versions of the 2016 Chevrolet Corvette, Equinox, Silverado, Suburban and Tahoe, and will roll out to others during the 2016 model year. [Read more]General Motors
Volkswagen Golf R Touch gesture controls
Volkswagen Golf R Touch
Multiple automakers have announced plans to include gesture controls in cars that let the driver open windows or change menus on the dashboard screen with a swipe of a hand. Volkswagen’s was by far the most elaborate. The side windows and the sunroof could be opened and closed with a short swiping motion that had to be oddly precise to make it work (it took me several tries). Perhaps of more immediate interest is an entirely new menu and screen layout for all of the navigation, climate and infotainment controls. It included modern-looking graphics and tiles as seen on the latest tablets and smart phones. Tablet-like touch gestures, like spreading apart fingers to expand menus, and pinching to collapse them were snappy, with zero lag. A second touchscreen below the main one on the dashboard also incorporated touch-less functions but was a bit clunky in operation. All of the technology in the Golf R Touch is conceptual at this point. Volkswagen is still perfecting its gesture controls and will look to incorporate them piecemeal in the coming years, rather than all at once, provided they meet safety standards, a Volkswagen spokesperson said.
Volvo/POC connected bicycle helmet
Connected Bicycle Helmet
Volvo is working with Ericsson and sports gear company POC on a bicycle helmet that can communicate with networked cars and help avoid collisions between motorists and bicyclists. Using a smartphone app like Strava, a bicyclist’s position can be communicated through the cloud to vehicles equipped with Volvo’s City Safety system. If a collision is imminent, drivers get a warning in their head-up display—as do cyclists on the road, via helmet-mounted alert lights. The high-tech helmet is still under development. Volvo did not say when it might come to market. In 2012, 49,000 cyclists were injured in the United States and 726 were killed, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Those fatalities represent an increase of 6.5 percent compared to 2011.Volvo/Ericsson/POC