LAS VEGAS -- At the big Consumer Electronics Show here in Nevada, it was the year of the connected, self-driving car. Five years ago, there was barely an automotive presence at CES, but now carmakers — GM, Ford, Chrysler, BMW, VW, Audi, Hyundai — have taken over half of the north pavilion, showcasing how the modern automobile has become merely another form of mobile device.

This Audi A7 drove hands-free from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas.

This Audi A7 drove hands-free from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

As CES started, Audi sent a driverless A7 filled with journalists from Silicon Valley to the convention center, 550 miles without anyone at the steering wheel. “We’re pretty happy it worked out as planned,” Audi’s Daniel Lipinski told me. “We were autonomous everywhere but construction sites and areas with poor lane markings. There were no issues.” Two of the journalists told me they had a blast.

Panasonic brought out a pre-production Model X.

Panasonic, which makes batteries for Tesla, brought out a pre-production Model X. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Right after seeing the hands-free A7, I had an opportunity to take a brief ride in a self-driving electric BMW i3. I was at the wheel, but not driving, my first time in that position. As the car pulled away, it was the most eerie feeling. A short hop, but it felt like a giant step into new territory. Every auto exec I talked to in Vegas thinks the autonomous car is coming, though they disagree on the timetable somewhat.

Dominik Hierl, CEO of Telit, a wireless company that helped Audi add 3G Internet to its connected vehicles, told me, ‘In 10 to 15 years, cars will be fully autonomous. It’s happening quickly. Two years ago, nobody would have believed a self-driving car could travel from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas.”

Mercedes' F015 interior includes seats that swivel to face each other.

Mercedes' F015 interior includes seats that swivel to face each other. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

The night before, Mercedes-Benz’ Dieter Zetsche introduced the company’s latest concept, F015 Luxury in Motion. As far as I know, it’s the world’s first car built to be fully self-driving, with seats that swivel fully around and “windows” that double as touch screens. It was hard to tell if the F105 (which is made of lightweight carbon fiber, aluminum and high-strength steel) even has a drivetrain, though the company talked about hydrogen fuel cells. Here's video:

“There is huge potential for autonomous cars,” Zetsche said. “We will shortly be able to make the business case, and the time is right to think about the car of the future.” He added that questions like who’s responsible in a crash still loom large, however.  

The self-parking e-Golf: It will charge itself, too.

The self-parking e-Golf: It will charge itself, too. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Volkswagen also had self-driving cars at CES, and I enjoyed a valet parking demonstration. Here’s the pitch: You come home from a hard day at the office, the car full of the groceries you picked up on the way home, and stop at the front door. Meanwhile, the vehicle (electric, of course) heads off and parks itself over at a wireless charging spot. The technology isn’t futuristic; it’s here now. Here’s the video:

Heinz-Jakob Neusser, a member of the Volkswagen board of management, explained that it’s splitting the self-driving innovation with its partner, Audi. VW does the parking and Audi the on-the-road driving. The parking part, he said, is easier to do and will hit the market first — it’s actually here now, though in the current incarnation, the driver stays behind the wheel and handles the shifting.

There’s all kinds of other things that connected cars can do. BMW’s Joachim Hauser showed me the ParkNow app, which finds garages with available spaces, prices them, books a space, then starts a countdown that times out your stay — with payment from the credit card they have on file. No need to stop at the exit booth. A number of companies are enamored of proximity sensors in smartwatches to unlock or lock cars, start them or pre-start the climate control.

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

The triumph of the connected car at CES
The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is a showplace for cool auto tech.