Cars have always flaunted new technology. Headlights were largely oil-powered until 1912, when Cadillac introduced a must-have electric system. And road trips became more fun in 1930, when the “Motorola” car radio taught drivers to tune in to the news and dance with their wheels. There was similar excitement at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, where satellite-aided driving technology, hand-gesture controls and constantly updated cloud-based maps took centre stage.

At the show, bloggers talked up Faraday Future’s FFZERO1 Concept racer, and revved for Volkswagen’s emissions-free BUDD-e minivan and e-Golf Touch concepts. Green technology is clearly as popular as ever, and the event’s highlight was General Motors’ plug-in Chevy Bolt compact, which could cost about US$30,000 after tax subsidies, and run for 320km, or five round trips from Central to Tai Po, on one home charge, its website map says.

Marques approach new technology at their own pace, fulfilling government emissions and safety requirements, and then ordering new tech to suit “core values”. Tesla rolled out its 7.1software update on January 18, with the claim that it “makes the only cars on the road that improve with time, thanks to free, over-the-air software updates and the ability to anonymously gather and learn from fleet driving”.

Self-driving vehicles have been a hot topic. Tesla’s Autopilot driving aid has made headlines for its Model S, but Mercedes-Benz perfected its autonomous driving technology in an S Class and a truck in 2013-14, and the BMW i8 and Chevy Volt won major Green Car of the Year awards in 2015.

Audi is also close to enabling drivers to take their eyes off the road, but questions remain over safety and accident liability in autonomous-driven cars, especially in crowded Hong Kong, where the Transport Department says that in October, there were about 344 licensed vehicles per kilometre on the city’s 2,099km of public road.

The latest proven automotive innovations are arguably here. The trend-setting spending power of our city’s rich led Lamborghini to hold the Huracán Spyder LP 610-4’s Asian launch in Repulse Bay last October, less then a month after its Frankfurt unveiling. A few weeks later, BMW whisked its new sixth-generation 7 Series to Wan Chai, where 300 socialites experimented with the Bavarian marque’s latest gesture control, a car-parking key fob, and laser lights that extend night range from 300 to 600 metres.

The Bentley Bentayga could be the talk of the town by the end of March. Laden with the Volkswagen Group’s best technology, “the fastest, most powerful, most luxurious and most exclusive SUV in the world” can use navigation data, sensors and cameras to predict upcoming corners and speed-limit changes, and then change its speed. Its dashboard clock technology reaffirms brand alliances, with a bespoke gold mechanical Mulliner Tourbillon by Breitling, and its own on-board high-precision winding mechanism.

Rolls-Royce is more nonchalant. “For us, technology is a firm foundation rather than a key selling point,” its regional spokeswoman, Rosemary Mitchell, says. But, the marque is proud of its GPS Satellite- Aided Transmission in the Ghost Series II and Wraith, in which “the car looks ahead to prepare the transmission for junctions, roundabouts and motorway ramps, keeping the ride as smooth as possible, as a chauffeur would”, Mitchell says. A steering-wheel button in the new Dawn convertible activates voice commands such as “Navigate to St Tropez”, and the satellite navigation system will plot the fastest route.

Maps for such trips used to be on DVD discs. Now, as users are more familiar with cloud storage and having the latest information available through the internet, many drivers can plug their smartphones into dashboards to use Google Maps and store music and business information on remote, internet-based “cloud” systems. As a result, many cars ditch old computer storage and create more cabin space. Mapping expert HERE says its new HERE HD Live Map is “the world’s most advanced cloud-based map asset commercially available for vehicles”, as it links to cars’ adaptive cruise control, adaptive headlights and curve speed warnings.

Marques and software companies are teaming up. Google’s Android Auto can be used by 40 marques, and at CES, Microsoft said it would offer its cloud to Nissan’s electric Leaf, and that Harman would add its Office 365 software on its infotainment systems. “Bringing the power of Office 365 into Harman’s connected car systems ... will allow consumers to be more productive during their driving hours,” says Peggy Johnson, Microsoft’s executive vice-president of business development. Tech company Letv has fitted an Aston Martin Rapide S with the latest Letv Internet of the Vehicle system, which includes speech-recognition technology, and “equipped this supercar brand with an ‘internet brain’ “, according to Letv Super Car co-founder Ding Lei.

If you want to talk to your car, you can. Apple CarPlay lets owners access their iPhone’s functions directly from the XC90’s Sensus Connect system. Volvo owners could soon tell their car to reset the navigation, lock up, or sound the horn via the Volvo on Call app and the Microsoft Band 2 wrist device.

“We are not interested in technology for the sake of technology,” says Volvo Car Group senior vicepresident Klas Bendrik. “If a technology does not make a customer’s life easier, better, safer or more fun, we don’t use it. Let’s face it – who hasn’t dreamed of talking to their car via a wrist-worn wearable?” 

Drone maker invites innovators to enter competition to create surveying system for use in emergency zones

Ford and Shenzhen-based drone-maker DJI is inviting innovators to enter the DJI Developer Challenge, a US$100,000 competition to create a rapidly deployable surveying system for the United Nations Development Programme to use in inaccessible emergency zones, farming or infrastructure projects.

UN emergency crews would drive as far as they could to an earthquake or tsunami zone in a Ford F-150, which then becomes their base station, as it is equipped with drone-to-vehicle communications using the Ford SYNC AppLink or OpenXC.

"Using the Ford SYNC 3 touchscreen, the driver could launch a drone by accessing an app projected through the Ford SYNC AppLink," the carmaker says. The drone would then shoot and map the area, and share the real-time data on a cloud via the F-150 driver's smartphone, and then return to the truck. Applicants can apply online at developer.dji.com/challenge2016, and a developer package will be sent to 24 teams on March 19.