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  • By John R. Quain

Going Mobile: Cars as Consumer Electronics at IFA

Bosch view of the autonomous future. Photo by John R. Quain

Berlin -- The annual IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin draws roughly 250,000 attendees every year, and this year a new crowd visited the final two days of the show to join Shift Automotive, a new section of the show focused on rapidly changing technologies in the automotive world.

From automakers like Daimler to suppliers like Continental, scores of companies laid out their plans for the future of mobility and transportation.

Bosch, which is a major auto parts and systems supplier, promoted a vision of the future of autonomous cars tied into its its appliances division: Meal planning--and cooking--from the front seat of your car. On display was a BMW sedan with a futuristic Bosch interior of displays and Web services to help drivers/passengers in the forthcoming world of autonomous cars.

Looking for a recipe? The car's infotainment system will help you find it, check what items you have for the meal at home, and then order what you're missing from a grocery store on the way home. Or perhaps you're stuck in traffic. The car's computer can alert your slow cooker at home to keep things warm.

Elsewhere around the IFA exposition grounds, Nuance took me on a test drive to demonstrate the latest iteration of the company's voice recognition system. Nuance is the software behind most in-car voice control systems, ranging from basic embedded systems with limited functions to more natural language cloud-based systems that can answer questions like what the local weather forecast is and deliver the latest NFL scores.

Dragon Drive in action. Photo by John R. Quain

Facing competition from simpler but extremely popular voice assistants like Amazon's Alexa, Nuance is raising its game with a full natural language assistant that does not require a wake up word or command. Simply ask a relevant question, such as, “Where is the closest gas station?” and the Nuance system answers. It also ignores you when you are clearly talking to a passenger in the car.

On the congested roads wending around the exposition grounds, Nuance demonstrated its next-generation system, Dragon Drive, which adds a visual augmented reality component from partner Apostera. The new Nuance system uses an eye-tracking camera aimed at the driver and a live street view of your surroundings. A driver then can simply glance at a nearby restaurant, and ask about hours or for a review. The system automatically recognizes what you're looking at and delivers the relevant information. It worked about half the time during our afternoon drive, recommending a place known for its curried bratwurst (trust me, it's not a delicacy you need sample).

How the latest Nuance system will be implemented in new cars will depend on what elements automakers decide to integrate into their vehicles. One hint: you can expect to see some German car companies using it in conjunction with a head-up display as early as the end of this year.

In-dash systems weren't the only source of automotive news at IFA. For those of us who are not shopping for a new car, there were a couple of notable add-on devices. In the “not dead yet” category, TomTom introduced a new portable navigation device (PND), the TomTom Go Essential. To compete with smartphone apps, TomTom will include free lifetime map updates, traffic information, and voice recognition, including Siri compatibility, in the Go Essential. The PND also has built-in Wi-Fi for downloading updates and when paired to a smartphone it will read incoming messages out loud.

One reason to consider the dedicated Go Essential is that TomTom has a better re-routing function than popular smartphone apps like Waze. That's because TomTom has the intelligence to tell you how much time will be saved before you decide to change your route. Waze leaves you in the dark and has an annoying tendency to send you zigzagging along side roads and through small towns just to save 2 minutes on a 4-hour drive. The Go Essential should be in stores this fall for about $200 for the 5-inch LCD model.

Meanwhile, technological solutions to curb the dangerous epidemic of distracted driving were also on display at the show such as Chris--a text-reading, voice recognition accessory. Chris can be mounted on a windshield and connects wirelessly to a driver's Android or Apple smartphone to deliver hands-free voice and gesture recognition control for playing music, making phone calls, and reading texts. The goal is to keep drivers from reaching for their phones while delivering important features with fewer distractions.

Chris just started shipping in Europe, and its founders said it should hit U.S. shores early next year. Expect it to be priced at around $250.

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