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Monday, January 6, 2014

Automotive Innovation Flourishes In 2014

Audi's new laser headlight technology will make its way into the 2014 Audi R18 e-tron quattro race car. (Audi Sport)

Audi’s new laser headlight technology will make its way into the 2014 Audi R18 e-tron quattro race car. (Audi Sport)

It’s only the beginning of January, but its not too early to declare 2014 a big year for automotive innovation.

The first of the advances are being rolled out for public viewing at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and will include technologies that seem like they’re straight out of a Jetson’s episode, including built-in software that recognizes a car owner’s voice and responds to his or her commands.

And next week, car aficionados can head to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where manufacturers are rolling out a variety of new and innovative vehicles, including Ford’s all-aluminum pick-up truck.

Paul Eisenstein, publisher of the car news website The Detroit Bureau, joins Here & Now’s Meghna Charkrabarti to discuss the latest in automotive innovation.





It is only January, but it's not too early to declare 2014 a big year for automotive innovation. We'll get an early glimpse at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, including automotive technologies using lasers and the latest in voice recognition.

And next week, car manufacturers will introduce 50 new models at the Detroit Auto Show. Paul Eisenstein is in Detroit where he publishes, and temperatures there could drop to minus-5 today with a feels-like of minus-29. Paul, welcome.

PAUL EISENSTEIN: Hi. Good to be with you.

CHAKRABARTI: Hope you're staying warm. Let me just, first of all, ask you, Paul, in minus-29-degree weather or what feels like minus-29, what should people do to get their cars out or protect their cars?

EISENSTEIN: Well, obviously once you dig out, which isn't going to be easy in some parts of the country, there are a few things you should keep in mind. One, make sure your battery is working. If you've got a battery that's been giving you trouble, replace it as quickly as you can. When you're driving, you want to make sure that you have enough windshield washer fluid, something people forget.

Normally, I tell people you don't have to warm up your car when you start up. It's not a bad idea in this sort of weather. And one of the things which I'm a big proponent on is get snow tires. If I had a choice between a car with rear-wheel drive and really good snow or ice tires on it, I'd go for the car with the snow tires.

CHAKRABARTI: Not to mention the fact that driving in snow is a skill in and of itself. But, Paul, let's move back to talking about automotive innovation because the Consumer Electronics Show is coming right up in balmy Las Vegas, if I can say. What's caught your eye there in terms of interesting developments in automotive technology?

EISENSTEIN: Well, we're going to see a lot more over the next couple of days from the auto industry. CES, which was traditionally computers, smartphones and TVs, has become more and more of an automotive revelation. I expect to hear a lot about autonomous vehicles over the next few days. We're also going to hear more about infotainment systems.

So, for example, General Motors has just announced that they're going to be equipping all of their Chevrolet - or almost all of their Chevrolet models over the next few years with hotspots so that they can link apps from their smartphones to the infotainment system. That means you'll be able to play things like Pandora, InTune, Stitcher. Matter of fact, they're going to have an NPR app.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. So on the one hand, the hotspot idea seems wonderful. On the other hand, I was worried about the constant problem of distracted drivers.

EISENSTEIN: Well, true. And that is a concern. But, you know, people do do things in the cars. It also gives kids in the backseat a reason not to be distracting you by saying when are we going to be there? Another vehicle that will show up at CES this year is the Audi Sport Quattro Laserlight. This is a car that replaces its high beams with laser beams. And it's so powerful that with the high beams this vehicle would be able to light up the road a third of a mile ahead of you.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, let's move back to Detroit where the Detroit Auto Show starts a week from today, and you've had a chance to preview some of the exciting new introductions and - in that show. What are they?

EISENSTEIN: Oh, my gosh. There are so many vehicles. We're going to be seeing the next version of the new Chevrolet Corvette, for example, called the Z06, for people who just have to have 600 horsepower when they're driving to work. We're going to be seeing new luxury vehicles. Manufacturers are getting very, very smart at how to tune power trains these days so that they can give you more horsepower, more performance than ever. But they can also give you great fuel economy.

CHAKRABARTI: And so how are - exactly are they doing that? Are they changing the materials that they're using?

EISENSTEIN: Well, that's a good point. It - several things are happening. One, they're learning how to use things like turbocharging and direct injection and the like, all these new technologies, to squeeze more power out of smaller and smaller engines. But you're also seeing breakthroughs when it comes to materials.

So, for example, Ford is going to be launching what may be the star of the show, a new version of its big F-series pickup. Believe it or not, by switching to aluminum, they're going to cut the weight of this vehicle by anywhere from five to 700 pounds, in turn raising fuel economy by five to seven miles a gallon.

CHAKRABARTI: What about completely alternative sources of fuel?

EISENSTEIN: We'll see the first American unveiling of the new Toyota hydrogen car. In fact, we're going to be seeing at least three and probably more hydrogen cars reach the American market over the next 12 to 18 months.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Paul Eisenstein is publisher of Paul, always a pleasure to talk with you. And stay safe and warm.

EISENSTEIN: Thanks. You too. And I hope everyone is careful when they're driving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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