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Automakers show off latest high-tech features at CES

While the Detroit Auto Show has traditionally been the New Year's kickoff for the automotive industry, the annual Consumer Electronics Show has increasingly upended that role.

Several manufacturers trumpeted their presence in the North Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center this week, hoping to connect with a new audience.

This year's CES saw brands like Chevrolet, Toyota and Kia cover a wide spectrum of high-tech topics, from advanced lighting to in-car entertainment, as well as what has become one of the most talked-about technologies in some time: autonomous driving.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: Autonomous vehicles to make up big chunk of US market)

Audi crossed the Atlantic Ocean with some 30 European journalists, while Mercedes-Benz and BMW also brought representatives of the automotive media to Las Vegas. Those who had never before attended CES were taken aback by the size of the largest trade show in Las Vegas, one that hosts 3,200 exhibitors that distribute some 20,000 new products.


Audi Sport Quattro Laserlight concept car at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on January 6, 2014.
Getty Images
Audi Sport Quattro Laserlight concept car at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on January 6, 2014.

BMW used CES to detail its state of autonomous driving, bringing attendees up to the nearby Las Vegas Motor Speedway to watch as a 6 Series and a prototype of the upcoming M235i handled the course in fully autonomous mode—braking, accelerating and maneuvering a short slalom as if expert driver The Stig was at the helm.

Audi also had autonomous driving in mind as it began its own presentation with a driverless car pulling on stage, but the highlight of its news conference was the new Audi Sport Quattro Laserlight concept. A step beyond the LED lights only now becoming common in the automotive market, the show car's laser headlamps can light up the road for nearly a third of a mile, far more than any competing technology, Audi officials crowed, promising to put laser lamps into an as yet undisclosed new product.

(Read more: Why Mulally is setting Ford up for a big 2014)

But Audi will not be the first to get laser light into a production vehicle. That honor goes their colleagues from Munich, who will show the production version of the BMW i8 with standard laser light during a show this spring.

In keeping with CES tradition, connectivity was a big topic. Chevrolet used its time in the spotlight to announce it would begin building new 4G LTE hotspots into virtually all of its products starting in 2015, in partnership with AT&T.

Chevy also debuted a Performance Data Recorder with internal camera, microphone and telemetry system that it will begin offering on the Corvette Stingray and new Corvette Z06 later this year.

One of the more intriguing developments at CES was news that Google would gain a foothold in the fast-growing infotainment world, as Audi, General Motors, Honda and Hyundai are signing on with the new Open Automotive Alliance that will be based around the tech giant's Android operating system.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: Google wants to rule your car)

Kia, meanwhile, showed a couple of concepts that can be used with its UVO infotainment system. The first is a user-centered device (UCD), whose wide-screen, head-up display gives drivers information such as speed, navigation or traffic data across 18 inches above the instrument cluster. It's joined by a 12.3-inch TFT LCD display that provides the data in 3-D.

The system also charges mobile devices wirelessly and uses hand-gesture recognition for additional information.

Electric cars offer opportunities to get connected not only to your smartphone, but even the newest "wearable" tech devices. New is the Samsung Galaxy Gear, a smartwatch developed with BMW, while Mercedes is offering something similar with the Pebble smartwatch.

Alternative power has almost become passé at CES, but Toyota generated buzz with the U.S. unveiling of its new FCV, a concept version of the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle it plans to put on the market in 2015. Unlike battery cars, with their limited range and long charging times, the FCV will deliver 300 miles of range before needing a three- to five-minute fill-up, said Bob Carter, Toyota senior vice president of automotive operations.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: Toyota's new hydrogen car makes US debut)

Toyota also brought two battery cars, the ultra compact electric i-Road and the FV2, with the FV2 deemed a model for the connected future.

Meanwhile, Ford tried to show that battery cars don't have to be tied to the plug, unveiling the C-Max Solar Energi Concept, an extended-range electric vehicle that can alternatively draw its power from the sun. The prototype uses a new concentrator to increase the amount of solar energy it can capture—speeding up the recharge process significantly.

CES attendees had their attention turned back to the track by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, the global motorsports sanctioning body, which demonstrated the new Formula E race car. The FIA has given approval for a global championship series that will start next September in smoggy Beijing. The electrical race series will run from September 2014 through June 2015 and will be held in big cities across North and South America, Europe and Asia.

By Henny Hemmes, thedetroitbureau.com, with reporting from CNBC contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow Eisenstein on Twitter @DetroitBureau or at thedetroitbureau.com.

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