At CES 2019, the battle for the smart car goes full throttle

CES 2019: And you won't have to buy new wheels

The battle for the smart car at CES
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The smart home is having a mammoth CES 2019, but many of these same companies are now looking beyond the walls of your house. The car is ripe for a takeover (Apple and Google started early with CarPlay and Android Auto) and this year we’re seeing more tech companies team up with automotive manufacturers team to put their brains on the road.

Audi was at the show to show off its new e-tron which comes with Alexa inside. Yes, we’ve seen Alexa in a few cars already, but for the first time Alexa will run off its own internet connection rather than relying on your phone. I got to take it for a quick spin (Alexa, not the car, which would have been disastrous on the crowded show floor) and while it’s a pretty bare-bones experience visually (this helps to avoid distractions) there's immediate appeal in Alexa always poised to help.

Read this: The Ambient's top picks of CES 2019

Over on the other side of the show, Google was finding new ways to get its on the road. The new in-car devices from Anker and JBL might be the most interesting: these affordable accessories plug into the cigarette lighter and let you chat with the Google Assistant. Each has microphones and noise cancellation, and only cost $50 or $60 depending on if you go Anker or JBL, respectively. Think of them as a halfway house between your phone and your car stereo, letting you interacting with the Assistant as you would a Google Home.

In fact, Anker already has a version of this gadget for Alexa - the Roav Viva. But Google’s new line of car devices are also a riposte to Echo Auto, Amazon’s credit card-sized box that brings Alexa to the car. These tiny accessories are a savvy way for tech companies to get their platforms in your car in lieu of a full infotainment dashboard.

At CES 2019, the battle to own the smart car is revving up

And what if you just want to use your phone? Google's now fully embedding the Assistant into Google Maps for easier hands-free control. You'll be able to call out "Hey Google" or "Ok, Google" and have the "listening" tab appear to signify the Assistant has its ear open. What you won't see is any text - this was done purposefully to avoid distractions, Google said.

Where I think this will be particularly useful is with sending messages while on the road (Google also announced at CES that it's improved Assistant dictation - it'll auto punctuate) or for asking the Assistant to share your ETA with someone.

At CES 2019, the battle for the smart car goes full throttle

Google and Amazon are finding ways to build the smart car without actually building a smart car, but there were other companies at CES going the whole hog. Byton's concept car, unveiled last year, was back in a production-ready EV model.

There's a ton of smarts in this thing: Facial recognition will detect who is approaching the car and whether they're authorized to unlock it, while keeping track of who's inside; Alexa integration supports multiple voice profiles; and Byton says the car will even use AI to learn about you and start proactively doing things like booking a table at a restaurant you have in your calendar. And there was a lot of touting 5G, which the system will run off. It all sounds pretty amazing, but truth be told the Chinese startup has yet to prove itself - this will be the first car it produces - but it shows yet another car maker looking to bring that connectivity onto the road.

At CES 2019, the battle for the smart car goes full throttle

And it wouldn't be a CES without Qualcomm peacocking on stage for everyone to see. The biggy was its Snapdragon Automotive Cockpit Platform, which it calls “the automotive industry’s first-announced scalable artificial intelligence-based platforms." Easy for you to say. This includes an AI cockpit system and is designed to support voice control, language recognition, passenger personalization and more.

And of course, as this is CES, there was plenty of traffic in the strange-looking -nobody-would-ever-really-get-in-this concept cars - but this year, they served as little more than a distraction from the real smart car takeover.

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