Coolest car gadgets and gizmos from CES


LAS VEGAS — CES showcases a lot of wild and crazy products every year, but many will never make it to consumers.

Still, some of the coolest tech we saw at the show were features you might see in cars in the next few years. Among the wilder automotive inventions at the Las Vegas Convention Center this year were Nissan’s mind-controlled driving, Ford’s Domino’s self-driving delivery vehicle and Honda’s Pixar-like robots.

Great car features start out as quirky ideas, ones you might easily dismiss before you realize their genius. Here’s a rundown of vehicle tech from startups and suppliers that caught our attention — and our best guess on whether the products will make it into cars.

A smile unlocks your car

Company: Mindtronic AI

Market: Vehicles

What makes it cool: Gesture control is not new. Facial recognition is not new. But this startup uses artificial intelligence to extrapolate models of your facial landscape, creating an array of expressions. It’s a “smile to unlock” feature. Eventually, it could learn your moods, likes and dislikes based on your individual profile and, for example, suggest activities or restaurants during a trip.

Prospects: The product is cool, but the real value is in the patents. The startup’s digital cluster, dubbed Noah, won a spot in CES’ coveted Innovation Awards Showcase, which is sure to attract major players’ attention. But while Mindtronic AI execs say they are ready for production, companies will more likely be interested in the intellectual property and algorithms fueling the technology. Expect to see aspects of this tech percolating as the industry gets hip to AI in the cockpit.

Smooth rides

Company: ClearMotion

Market: Autonomous vehicles

What makes it cool: This Tier 2 supplier startup has spent years mapping America’s crumbling roads, and uses cloud technology and an electronically controlled device to mitigate vibration and jolts caused by uneven road surfaces.

Prospects: Solidly possible — in the 2020s. The company’s product will be attractive to Tier 1s trying to improve their comfort and handling portfolio for autonomous vehicles. But it will take time to integrate the product into the supply chain, and using the cloud technology that sets it apart will require more cars with a data connection.

Smartphone keys

Company: Continental AG

Market: Rental-car companies

What makes it cool: Consumers can use a phone app to rent a vehicle, unlock it and drive it — without a key fob. The smartphone becomes the car key.

Prospects: Avis is testing the technology, so the outlook seems bright.

Spinning seats

Company: Faurecia and ZF Friedrichshafen

Market: Autonomous vehicles

What makes it cool: The front-seat frame rotates so that driver and passenger can face each other while the vehicle is in autonomous mode.

Prospects: The idea has already captued some interest. Chinese startup Byton displayed the seat in its crossover concept.

Simple safety visualization

Company: ZF Friedrichshafen

Market: Cars with advanced driver assistance systems and autonomous features

What makes it cool: ZF’s safety system check moves away from making the driver scroll through lots of screens on the dashboard. Instead, every feature is summarized in a simple graphic that looks like a three-ring binder. It lets drivers see how safe they are cruising in traffic.

Prospects: It’s a concept, part of a larger Concept 2020 display that includes a nifty 3-D landscape visualization. But one concern for autonomous vehicles is how to translate what the vehicle is doing without a human at the controls. ZF’s approach to summarize how safe you are with a basic graphic is simple, and its video-game-like visuals make it even more palatable to passengers who want to know what’s happening at a moment’s notice.

Voice control without a connection

Company: Panasonic

Market: Connected cars

What makes it cool: This software lets motorists use Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant for voice-activated cockpit controls even when the vehicle loses its cloud connectivity.

Prospects: This is a no-brainer. Automakers are moving quickly to improve their voice technology.

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