LAS VEGAS – For the first time, automotive electronics played a significant role at the annual Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas in January.

General Motors Corp. CEO Rick Wagoner became the first automotive executive to deliver a keynote address in the 41-year history of the show, sharing the spotlight with electronics luminaries such as Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and Intel Corp. CEO Paul Otellini.

More importantly, OEM automotive-related products joined the vast array of massive flat-panel displays, booming audio components and more than 20,000 other consumer-related electronics products, giving a glimpse of how consumer electronics may literally reshape vehicles and consumer expectations for future vehicles.

GM chose CES to introduce the fuel-cell powered Cadillac Provoq a few days prior to media days at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and there were several other demonstrations, as well, including the winner of the 2007 DARPA Grand Challenge for an autonomously controlled vehicle.

But beyond those, supplier displays and panel discussions revealed dramatic new ideas that promise to remake the human/machine interface, interior design and connectivity.

Growing use of onboard data storage was another trend at CES, increasing rapidly beyond what Ward’s reported last year. Seagate Technology and Toshiba Corp. both displayed an 80-GB 2.5-in. (6.4 cm) hard-disk drive for automotive applications. The storage units support GPS navigation, digital music, video and other telematics systems. These units could be available on ’10 models.

Personalization was an overriding theme, having a major impact on instrument-panel design and how information is displayed. One of the key aspects in any personalization effort is how it impacts the HMI, or how drivers and passengers interact with their vehicle’s various functions. A number of approaches were shown.

“You can clearly imagine why we are here at the CES, because we see this complete link from the consumer electronics, and how the consumer electronics really want to merge into the vehicle,” says Helmut Matschi, president of Continental Corp.’s Interiors Div.

Based on Microsoft Auto, Continental’s Multi Media Platform was one of many Continental products displayed at the show. MMP uses dual-core processors commonly found on the newest personal computers to meet customer’s performance expectations.

A demonstration vehicle developed by Visteon Corp. and 3M Corp. showed how dramatically different future interiors could be from today’s designs.

Based on observing target consumers and discussions regarding their driving experience, the concept interior is a sensory feast full of eye-popping holographic, 3-dimensional graphics in the instrument cluster and steering wheel, plus numerous tactile sensations.

A user-friendly HMI in the center console features buttons that give different varieties of haptic feedback to differentiate their function. Clearly, the successors to BMW AG’s iDrive and all its cousins will be easier and more fun to use.

“The focus on sensory technologies in this vehicle reflects people’s desire for more enjoyment and sensation from products. Consumers want to experience their products,” says Steve Meszaros, vice president, Visteon electronics.

“With 3M, we have integrated around 50 new technologies for interior, electronic and climate,” says Bertrand Stelandre, Europe senior manager design and innovation-Visteon.

The traditional approach to HMIs in the vehicle is a cockpit HMI design, a separate box for the control, another box for the display and another for the cluster. “On the design that we have, we merge everything,” says Stelandre. “There is no border between the HMI and the vehicle.”

Delphi Corp.’s Information, Convenience, Protection demonstration vehicle revealed an architecture for the future direction of display and control to come together in one system including the HMI. Today, a PC does the calculations for the demo vehicle.

“In the production version, a CPU (central processing unit) would handle all the information and control,” says Delphi Chief Engineer and Technical Fellow Sam He.

Many studies conclude that a 20-degree field of view makes driving safer, He says. As a result, Delphi focused much of its information in this area in a reconfigurable multi-color head-up display on the windshield.

The vehicle eliminates side-view mirrors that have blind spots and are sensitive to adjustments. Seven cameras provide real video imaging. The side view display moves inside the vehicle to get the information closer to the driver. It also reduces wind noise and improves fuel efficiency.

The Connect2Car panel was another key automotive event at CES.

Co-organized by the Convergence Transportation Electronics Association (CTEA) and SAE International, it addressed the issue of connectivity between vehicles and consumer electronics.

Eckhard Steinmeier, general manager of ConnectedDrive-BMW AG, set the stage with BMW’s view that integrating telematics into the vehicle’s entire connectivity is the path to the future.

That is not the case today and certainly was not part of some of the pioneering efforts that BMW did in this area.

Steinmeier announced the Next Generation Telematics Protocol, which was developed over the last year with Connexis and Wireless Car, two major telematics service providers.

BMW regards the separation of the components of the telematics delivery chain as key to making it much easier for users to change providers, Steinmeier says. In addition, it is easier for content providers, as well as telematics service providers that deliver services to different auto makers.

William Mattingly, vice president-engineering core-electrical/electronics for Chrysler LLC, says automotive engineers involved with consumer electronics need to think as if they are working on a personal computer. “When we have design reviews, I say, ‘How would the PC industry do it?’”

One result of this approach is hardware has become less specialized and more of a commodity, with the primary focus on connectivity, expansion of modularity, established interfaces and enhanced services, Mattingly says.

Gary Jablonski, manager-infotainment systems at Ford Motor Co. says early customer feedback from users of the Sync entertainment/communication unit has provided tremendous insight into customers’ expectations for consumer electronics.

Jablonski says beyond the media awards Sync won at CES 2007, 80% of Ford customers say Sync exceeds or greatly exceeds their expectations, and 90% recommend it to a friend.

Based on its broad availability in Ford vehicles, some not-so-technically-savvy customers have learned from Sync. “It may be their first experience with Bluetooth (wireless connectivity), or it may be their first experience with USB,” Jablonski says.

Ygomi LLC Chairman T. Russell Shields says customers want to use their consumer electronic devices for traffic information or music in their vehicle with minimal changes.

They do not want to deal with another service provider or yet another user interface, Shields says.

In other words, consumers want to get their information and entertainment the same way whether they are in their home, office, or car, Shields says.

Many automotive products introduced at CES specifically involved connectivity, as well.

In his keynote address, Microsoft’s Bill Gates announced Ford will be offering an upgrade to its Sync unit called 911 Assist. If the airbag deploys, the system uses a previously paired Bluetooth cell phone to call the 911 emergency operator.

The driver has a 10-second window to cancel the call. If not cancelled, a prerecorded message plays for the 911 operator.

Working with development-partners Clearwire Corp. and Motorola Inc., and Intel Corp. demonstrated a fully functional WiMAX network. John Hammond, staff network architect, WiMAX field engineering, wireless standards and technology, says, “We are able to travel on a 5-mile (8 km) course around the convention center area using WiMAX as our backbone (link) to the Internet.”

The transition from one access point to another occurs without interrupting streaming audio.

Inside the vehicle, an in-dash PC system integrated with the audio system provides the computing power.

“A full Core 2 Duo Pentium processor PC allows us to run all sorts of applications that you would run at home,” Hammond says.

One thing in-vehicle broadband access can provide is navigation. All the information stored on the Internet avoids refreshing map data and is quicker than updates on CDROM or flash-based memory. It only requires a download from the Internet.

Other capabilities from broadband connectivity include music, video and streaming Internet TV, plus location-based services. A hotspot inside the car allows a portable computer to tap into the Internet, as well.

“So we have a personal area network, a personal local area network, as well as a wide-area network,” Hammond says.

While auto makers and suppliers sort out what drivers and passengers really want for consumer electronics in vehicles, higher fuel prices have prompted many suppliers to start adding fuel-price information to telematics services so drivers can save money.

TomTom International BV, a leading supplier of portable navigation solutions, announced this capability at CES. TomTom Fuel Prices, a service that finds the lowest gas prices, will be available for TomTom 920 and 920T users in the U.S. starting early this year.

The service sends real-time pricing updates from gas stations directly to a TomTom device.

Freelance writer Randy Frank has been involved in automotive electronics for more than 25 years.