The Consumer Electronics Show: Fancy Hardware, Driver Distraction...and Artichokes

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 06, 2011

LAS VEGAS - Is it a cliché to report that there are slot machines in the Las Vegas airport? Or that the casino bars are open at six a.m.? Or that the Paris Las Vegas casino includes a half-sized replica of the Eiffel Tower? OK, forget that. How about watching open-mouthed while a craftsman on the floor of the big Consumer Electronics Show (CES) makes a Egyptian-looking statue entirely out of wet sand?

CES is an extravaganza, the biggest electronics show in the world, so indulge me a minute. It's so big that lines for the press conferences snake around the carpeted halls, and the fire marshal locks the doors with hundreds stranded outside. And when Panasonic's president, Shiro Kitajima, held up the new Viera Tablet, a thousand flashes went off the way they do when George Clooney walks the red carpet. The rage here is 3D television, which will give you one more platform for watching Avatar.

No, CES is not a car show. I'm going to the big one of those in Detroit next week. But consumer electronics and computer-enhanced cars, particularly when they're battery powered (just like all those hand-held devices) are starting to merge, in the minds of both retailers and the public. When your car can surf the Web and provide audiophile-level audio (with graphics!), the line between living room and auto cockpit are blurring.

The auto cockpit offers all the electronic comforts of home, minus the 15 remotes. Today's car audio system, typified by sophisticated offerings like MyFord Touch and Chrysler's UConnect Touch, is multi-platform and breathtakingly capable. It can bring in satellite and HD radio, play and recharge your iPod with head-end control, pull in real-time traffic reports and navigation, and more.

Chrysler's new UConnect Touch: increasingly sophisticated car stereo. (Chrysler photo)
Chrysler's new UConnect Touch: increasingly sophisticated car stereo. (Chrysler photo)

The danger here, of course, is driver distraction, a favorite subject here at Car Talk. For all of the devices I saw here that are designed to prevent accidents (such as aftermarket backup cameras), there were many others that would take your eyes off the road. I admired the enhanced sound of HD radio, but the paragraph-long news headlines that are available on some versions could certainly take away your attention. Automakers are still declining to let us watch movies on increasingly sophisticated dash-mounted screens (at least in motion), but that could change.

To guard against such distraction, automakers are increasingly turning to voice commands, but as Consumer Reports notes, Ford's system (one of the better ones) is still clunky to use. And frustration with a system like that is itself distracting.

I have a confession to make: I drive everything, but actually own two cars, a '67 Volvo and a '63 Dodge Dart. (Mine still runs, unlike Tom's, which was hastened to an untimely end by his teenage son. My youthful cousin's masterful attempt to end its life by backing into a brick wall has now been repaired.) Anyway, they have state-of-the-art audio in them--circa 1967, that is. The Dart has its original AM radio, which has a barely functional tuning dial. So it's good that I like all-news radio, because there's no second choice. The Volvo has FM, wow!

I've never owned a car with a CD player, let alone one with satellite radio and Skype access. But I can see how they'd be kind of fun, if distracting. The auto-related technology at CES is always going to be somewhat at odds with your main function in a car--actual driving.

This Mustang at CES had a big-screen TV mounted on the rear deck. Don't ask. (Jim Motavalli photo)
This Mustang at CES had a big-screen TV mounted on the rear deck. Don't ask. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I haven't seen any killer car apps yet, but the show is just getting started and I'm sure I'll find some cool stuff. Solar panels for cars are up and coming (the latest Prius, the Fisker Karma), and one good use for them would be running the power-hungry audio systems. I'll keep you informed.

One last thing: I owned an AR turntable as a kid, and always admired its stark, functional design. Acoustic Research is still around, I found, now making headphones and remotes. One of the latter (able to control 15 devices!) was featured in a big photo that offered two models in ecstasy over their new hardware. On the coffee table was a bowl containing three artichokes. I wonder who decided to put those artichokes there? Artichokes as decore?

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One