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A high-tech year ahead for automakers

Ford C-Max Solar Energi Concept
Source: Ford Motor Company
Ford C-Max Solar Energi Concept

Audi will light the way for the increasingly high-tech auto industry next week when it introduces its Sport Quattro Laserlight Concept vehicle at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The CES extravaganza has traditionally been the place where techies track breakthroughs in TV, smartphone and computer technologies, but in recent years cars have been an increasing focus. It's no wonder, considering that some of today's cars likely have more microprocessing power than the most sophisticated homes.

Technology is transforming virtually every aspect of the automobile, from engines to headlights—and even the mundane windshield wiper. Some of the year's biggest breakthroughs will make their debut at the CES and the 2014 North American International Auto Show, or NAIAS, which follows a week later in Detroit.

The Audi Sport Quattro Laserlight offers a good example of just how broad the automotive technology revolution has become.

Its muscular yet windswept body was developed entirely on a computer-aided design system that can simulate not only high-speed airflow but different crash scenarios. Its power comes from a plug-in hybrid drivetrain that, even while producing a jaw-dropping 700 horsepower, is expected to yield as much as 94 mpg and a 31-mile range on battery power alone.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: Audi Takes a Laser Focus to Laserlight Concept Vehicle)

Its headlights combine state-of-the-art LED low beams with even more advanced laser high beams. Audi has said the high beams yield "approximately twice the lighting range and three times the luminosity of LED high beam lights." That translates into a beam that can light an obstacle nearly a third of a mile ahead.

With tough new mileage standards rapidly approaching in 2016, and even more stringent rules set for 2025, some of the biggest technological developments are taking place under the hood. Virtually every major automaker now offers at least one conventional hybrid vehicle, and a growing number are rolling out new plug-in and pure battery-electric vehicles.

Ford Motor will bring to CES its prototype C-Max Solar Energi, a version of the plug-in "people mover" now in dealer showrooms. In this case, however, the maker says buyers would be able to ditch the plug thanks to a new "concentrator" technology that could boost the amount of energy harvested from the sun and be used to recharge the show car's batteries.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: Ford's Solar Energi Plug-In Hybrid Runs on Sun Power)

At the Detroit Auto Show, meanwhile, Toyota will stage the North American debut of its new fuel-cell vehicle prototype. A production version of the hydrogen-powered vehicle is scheduled to go on sale in 2015—though Hyundai plans to beat the Japanese giant to market with a fuel cell version of its Tucson crossover set for launch this spring.

Even the conventional gasoline engine is undergoing a transformation thanks to new and improved technologies such as direct injection and advanced turbocharging. Kia will bring to Detroit its GT4 Stinger, a concept sports car whose tiny, 2.0-liter engine will produce as much horsepower as a V-8 twice its size—while sipping far less fuel.

(Read more: Automakers miss, still see good year)

Expect to see plenty of safety technology debut this year, much of it the precursor to the autonomous vehicles that makers including Nissan, Ford and General Motors promise to put into production by the beginning of the next decade. Forward collision warning systems will be on a record number of cars in Detroit—more and more capable of stopping a vehicle entirely in a traffic jam, or if a potential collision is spotted.

The 2015 Hyundai Genesis will add a novel system designed to detect a build-up of carbon dioxide in the cabin, which might cause a motorist to get drowsy. The system will automatically vent the cabin if levels exceed 2,500 parts per million.

Plenty of new technology will also be at a motorist's fingertips.

Manufacturers are promising to reveal an assortment of updated infotainment systems at both CES and NAIAS. Expect to see more vehicles (including a wide range of Chevrolet models) offered with 4G hot spots that can increase data access—a great way to keep kids occupied on long trips or to yield faster access to email, music and other online services.

Makers also plan to provide access to an increasing number of smartphone apps, such as the Pandora and Stitcher radio services.

Even the most mundane features are being touched by the high-tech revolution. Ford's C-Max introduced a system that can detect a driver's foot under the rear bumper and pop open the hatch. With the new Hyundai Genesis, you'll only need to stand near the trunk with keys in your pocket for a few seconds for it to open up.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: Automakers looking at high-tech ways to eliminate the windshield wiper)

Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz and several other automakers are taking the windshield wiper to the next level—in fact, the wiper might soon disappear entirely.

Britain's McLaren Automotive hopes to adopt a system developed for military jets that uses sonic waves to clear the windshield. And Italian design house Pininfarina has a concept car, Hidra, that uses a multilayer coating to repel water and dirt—and which it says could be in production within a few years.

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