Las Vegas's annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is all about razzle and dazzle. Every January for the past 35 years, the crème de la crème of the geek world has descended upon the Nevada desert to turn Sin City into Nerd Heaven.
Geeky though it may be, however, CES is really the harbinger of all that is new in the digital world. And electronics are seemingly important enough that automakers are now unveiling all new cars in Vegas, just a week ahead of the once omnipotent Detroit North American International Auto Show.
The problem with being dazzled is that the hype seldom matches reality. So it was that Audi's A8 drove itself onto centre stage at the convention hall inside Sin City's ultra hedonistic Cosmopolitan hotel to much applause. Said applause grew stronger when the company previewed a video showing a chauffeur able to, well, chauffeur his clients hither and yon all from the comfort of his cozy den, the car literally driving itself with no one behind the wheel. The crowd was, to put it mildly, wowed.
Only it's an illusion. The technology that will allow a car to drive itself to far-flung destinations with no one behind the wheel is, if not quite ready for prime time, certainly on the horizon.
What still very much needs to be ironed out is who is responsible for that car when no one is behind the wheel. That is, if the car suffers a glitch – like your laptop just last week – and runs down a load of schoolchildren, who is responsible?
Not Audi, that's for sure. As Ulrich Hackenberg, Audi's board member for technical development, explained, Audi mandates that all its cars – self-driving or not – have a driver behind the wheel. The driver, Ulrich noted, is still by law responsible for the car. So, yes, although you will start seeing cars in the not-so-distant future that are able to drive themselves, chances are you'll still be behind the steering wheel and, no, you won't be sleeping or reading a newspaper because if something does happen, you're expected to take the reins, no matter how autonomous the car company will claim its products are.
Nor was the question of autonomous motoring the only legality raised at this year's monster electronics exhibition. Google announced numerous alliances with automakers – Audi included – that will see all manner of communication between car and man. Or, at least, his smartphone.
But, as has become readily apparent in recent months, the question of who owns all that data Google collects is problematic. While most current automobiles have "black boxes" that collect data on where you went, how fast you got there and what time you arrived, we are now entering an era where all this information will be "cloud based"; in other words, on someone else's server.
Such technology may prove even more invasive to our privacy than our smartphones. We can, after all, shut those down; these new cars will always be "connected". Police already access the on-board versions of these black boxes in case of accidents. Will they be able to access Google's database to give you tickets without even having to actually catch you in the act? Ditto for insurance companies who would, no doubt, be very interested in a comprehensive history of your driving habits.
What else was there? Ford showed off some updated apps – one can help you order pizza from Domino's – for its Sync system and showed off a C-Max Hybrid with a solar panel built into its roof. Audi unveiled some laser-powered headlights that are reputedly three times as luminescent as its current LEDs and Mercedes-Benz trumpeted a watch that will let you stay connected with your car 24/7.
On a thankfully less geeky note, Chevrolet announced a Performance Data Recorder option for its Corvette complete with a 720P windscreen-mounted video camera that lets you automatically record and display your latest racetrack foray. Score one for the gearheads.
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Original headline: Self-driving cars unite geeks and gearheads in Vegas
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