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Previous USAToday Columns

April 22, 2016
The shifting landscape of tech platforms, services

April 10, 2016
It's time for upgradable cars: O'Donnell

March 31, 2016
Forget 4K, It's Time for UltraHD

March 24, 2016
AR and VR Driving Major Innovations in Tech

February 24, 2016
The why's and what's of 5G

February 17, 2016
Dark clouds over cloud services reflect pull of legacy technology

January 25, 2016
Biometrics is the latest shield against password hacks

January 6, 2016
Navigating the in-car tech experience

2015 USAToday Columns

2014 USAToday Columns

USAToday Column

May 3, 2016
The hottest new technologies are coming to cars

By Bob O'Donnell

FOSTER CITY, Calif.—Ask tech industry observers to list the hottest new technologies and you’re likely to hear a consistent chorus of artificial intelligence (AI), neural networks, 5G, Internet of Things (IoT) and mobility.

Ask them where those technologies will have an impact, on the other hand, and the responses will likely be all over the map. Smartphones, smart cities and intelligent assistants are just a few of the many options you might hear.

Ironically, the one answer you probably won’t hear is the category that all of these technologies are either already in or quickly coming to: cars.

Today’s automobiles have some of the most advanced tech available, and over the next several model years, the amount and capabilities of that technology is going to increase dramatically.

Many of these advancements are being driven by the interest in what’s called ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems), the technology that will eventually lead to self-driving cars. To be clear, completely autonomous cars are still many years away from mainstream availability and usage. However, features like lane departure warnings, limited self-driving modes, automatic braking and many more are already starting to appear and make an impact.

The technological underpinnings necessary to enable these kinds of advanced driving enhancements are both challenging and extensive. Everything from the wiring connecting various tech components inside the car to the computing horsepower necessary to analyze enormous amounts of sensor data are impacted. It’s Internet of Things technology taken to the extreme.

In fact, this is why some of the most advanced and sophisticated computing power is being integrated into cars. Companies like Nvidia, Qualcomm and others are focusing intently on bringing their highest performing chips — and a variety of different chip architectures — to the challenges of today’s cars, because these assisted driving applications need them.

We’re even seeing growing interest in enabling interconnect technologies like high-speed Ethernet to serve as a backbone to connect many of the different subsystems inside of cars. The multiple cameras, LIDAR and other sensors being integrated into new models serve as inputs to sophisticated neural networks that are running inside the car. In order to function effectively, and in real time, the sensor data from these devices must be sent along speedy, reliable connections to these powerful AI-enabled, supercomputer-level compute engines.

Of course, another set of inputs to assisted driving features comes from the outside world, such as nearby connected cars and, eventually, roads, smart cities and other connected infrastructure elements. To leverage this data, you need not only fast connections but also ones that aren’t subject to the latency delays that can often occur on today’s cellular networks. That’s where 5G technology comes in.

Not only will it provide very speedy data connections to deliver real-time information, entertainment and other kinds of data to the drivers and passengers in the car, it will enable the kind of reliability that’s necessary for the type of life-and-death decisions and reactions that can occur in cars.

As compelling and important as these ADAS-related features are in today’s more advanced cars, there’s a lot more to the tech revolution now happening in the modern automobile. The simple truth is, it’s the tech that’s helping sell a lot of today’s cars. From more sophisticated entertainment features to better displays to more reliable connectivity, tech performance has largely overtaken driving performance for many modern buyers.

Plus, for many people, cars are their most important, most expensive and longest-lasting “mobile” device, so it only makes sense to integrate the kinds of innovations we’ve seen on our smartphones into this critical new mobile entrant.

As with ADAS features, there’s still a lot of work to be done in this area, but expect to see a great deal of innovations around enhancing the “interior tech” of future cars.

In some ways, it’s easy to write off cars, and car companies, as the technological Luddites of the modern world. However, the innovations starting to occur in the auto market actually make it one of the most exciting tech categories there is. And, there’s a lot more still to come.

USA TODAY columnist Bob O'Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, and Nvidia. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

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