The designers claim the technology behind the Hidra wiperless windshield could prove reasonably cost-competitive and could wind up in production in a few years, marking the most significant improvement in rain gear since the first hand-operated wipers were introduced more than a century ago.
British sports carmaker McLaren, meanwhile, has lifted a page from fighter jet construction. It's experimenting with a system that uses high-frequency sound waves to create a sonic barrier that prevents water and dirt from reaching the windshield.
More from The Detroit Bureau:
Automakers head to Beijing Auto Show
Muscle cars muscle into NY Auto Show
Toyota delivers major redesign of Camry
Aside from cleanliness, automakers would like to eliminate the windshield wiper to remove the aerodynamic drag that reduces a vehicle's fuel economy.
Manufacturers also are looking at ways to keep things clean inside their vehicles. Most fabrics are now treated with dirt and liquid-resistant coatings—or can be ordered with an optional treatment package. Ford says it also tries to design vehicles so it's easy to wipe or vacuum food and spilled beverages out of cracks and crevices.
To that effect, the new Honda Odyssey minivan this year began offering an optional, built-in vacuum cleaner tucked into its rear cargo compartment.
Read MoreAutos: The next battleground for tech companies
Of course, one challenge is preventing messes in the first place. General Motors has been conducting research on ways to keep passengers, especially children stuck in the back rows, known to industry engineers as "the puke zone," from getting carsick.
"We know through other scientific research that even if our eyes are focused on a fixed point—if we can see the outside passing by in the window—our brain is telling us that we are moving," explained Don Shreves, GM's human factors engineering group manager said. "But if our eyes are at a downward angle and do not see the view outside the vehicle, our bodies become sensitive to motion and increase the chance of sickness."
Among other things, the research has shown GM engineers that passengers are less likely to get sick when DVD screens are mounted overhead.