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Autonomous driving and gesture control tech showcased at CES


Driving is meant to be fun and technology can now take over when it's not, freeing the driver from the tedium of traffic jams. That's the pitch from Mercedes-Benz at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where car makers present their visions of future mobility.

Beyond the expected autonomous driving was a shift towards gesture controls to operate in-car systems and even greater internet-based connectivity, giving the tech-savvy occupants more time to work or socialise.

As Mercedes-Benz chairman Dr Dieter Zetsche says: "The car is growing beyond its role as a mere means of transport and will ultimately become a mobile living space." Computer-controlled cars are already on the roads - prestige brands use active steering and adaptive cruise control to make the driver's life easier with "semi-autonomous" assistance.

Audi showed how that will soon translate into completely hands-free driving by having an A7 Sportback motor 880km from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas. The party trick for the A7 was interacting with cloud-based servers to process data streamed from the vehicle to augment the in-built navigation and adaptively "teach" it about road conditions on the route.

Journalists sat behind the wheel during the drive but it was the car that changed lanes, overtook, accelerated and braked on the highways.

Audi calls it "piloted driving" and, as with most European makers, insists the autonomous driving is meant to augment the driving experience, not replace it altogether.

Benz's take is farther ahead in time and concept, previewing what Mercedes predicts the car will look like by 2030 when most of the world's population will live in cities.

Autonomous driving is one of the biggest innovations since the invention of the car

Dubbed the F015 Luxury in Motion, the concept car dispenses with dash-mounted buttons in favour of a full-width digital dash and a head-up display with augmented reality to show user-defined points of interest on the route.

The vehicle's 5.2 metre length houses four swivelling pod-like seats in an open and airy interior intentionally designed to represent a lounge room - or home theatre.

Six screens are arrayed around the cabin and can be operated by voice, gesture, eye-tracking or old-fashioned touch (BMW, VW Group and Hyundai are also on board the gesture-recognition bandwagon).

The quality of life approach extends outside the vehicle. The F015 scans for pedestrians and, if it determines it can safely stop, will activate a pulsating light from the LED grille (in place of eye contact) to show the pedestrian they've been recognised. A laser then projects a virtual pedestrian crossing, backed by an audible "please go ahead" prompt.

When the roads become less congested and more contoured, the driver can swivel his or her seat towards the dash and the wheel will extend automatically for hands-on steering.

Benz head of research Dr Thomas Weber says autonomous driving is one of the biggest innovations since the invention of the car.

"Drivers are relieved of work and stress in situations in which driving is not enjoyable, and the time gained while in their car takes on a whole new quality: the freedom to do other things while driving instead of steering, accelerating and braking," he says.

As Ford CEO Mark Fields notes "today there are 25 megacities (with more than 10 million population); by 2030 there will be 41".

Anyone who has had to endure peak hour in Melbourne or Sydney - neither of which qualify as megacities - knows how frustrating and time-consuming the process is.

Benz and Ford want that time put to more productive, or entertaining, uses. Fields says research shows 39 per cent of Millennials - who are notoriously hard to convince to buy a car - catch public transport because they want to multi-task on the commute to and from work.

Car companies are accordingly conceiving cars to let them do just that. Ford chief technical officer Raj Nair says the Sync 3 multimedia system "is another step forward in delivering connectivity features customers most want, and they tell us this kind of technology is an important part of their decision to buy our vehicles".

Ford says an average car already produces 25GB of data an hour

This level of connectivity and sensor-based driving is giving rise to "big data" for cars.

Ford says an average car already produces 25GB of data an hour and manufacturers are mining that information to assess driving patterns.

Sharing the data is an "opt-in" process - Ford provides incentives in the form of discounts - and it is this aspect that third parties are most enthusiastic about.

Fields says: "What if you owned a database of all your driving behaviours for all the years since you got your licence? What if this driver score passport could go with you from car to car, no matter the brand? Imagine that you could share that information with insurance companies to get better rates." GM is on the same track and has teamed with a US insurance company to 'provide potential discounted insurance offers" based on a 90-day assessment of driving behaviour.

"The beauty of this program is that control is in the hands of the customer," GM executive Greg Ross says. "If they wish to participate, we'll inform them of their driving behaviour and then they're able to choose if they want to share their information with an insurance provider."