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Buckle up: The connected-car revolution is almost here

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Soon, you won't need to buy a Tesla to get a car that's as well-connected and technologically advanced as your smartphone. This year at CES, it was clear that we've finally reached a point where a plethora of connected cars will soon be ready for the road. That's a huge step up from past shows, where it always seemed like we were just previewing whiz-bang, futuristic car tech from afar. (CES being CES, there was still lots of that.) Expect advanced dashboards; built-in LTE; revamped entertainment systems; a variety of sensors and cameras to help you park and prevent accidents; and more to be included in new cars from several manufacturers in the next few years.

Gallery: Maserati's Qualcomm connected car concept | 6 Photos

The sad state of car tech

While we've seen attempts at modernizing your car gadgetry over the past few decades -- including things like parking assistance and "night vision" with thermal cameras -- the big stumbling block for the auto industry has been its glacial pace of innovation. Of course, there are legitimate reasons for taking things a bit slowly: Carmakers have to make sure that new tech meets strict safety standards, and it's not as if we're buying cars as often as we buy phones (or even computers). But when juxtaposed with the mobile industry's rapid evolution, the auto industry just seems out of touch today. It's no wonder, then, that the future of cars has been a prominent theme at CES recently. It's a show that's always been about what's next, and when it comes to car tech, it's clear we've been thirsty for innovation for some time. When you're making one of the biggest purchases of your life, it's not asking for too much to have a built-in computer that's as versatile and responsive as your $200 tablet.

Ford was one of the first major car companies to deliver a connected experience in 2007. Its Sync platform, originally developed together with Microsoft, allowed drivers to take calls, control music and interact with their phone's apps with steering wheel controls and voice commands. But, just like Windows XP's tablet support, being early to the game for Microsoft didn't exactly lead to success. It wasn't long before other auto companies started adding similar features to their cars, and Sync's age quickly began to show as smartphones and tablets matured. To fix that, Ford just announced it's dumping Microsoft's platform for the third generation of Sync and replacing it with BlackBerry's QNX (more on that below).

Maserati's Qualcomm connected-car concept

What to expect this year

After announcing its auto-focused Snapdragon 602A chip at last year's CES, Qualcomm is now shipping it out to carmakers. The company's no stranger to the connected-car business -- it's been providing 3G and 4G modules for the past decade -- but the 602A is its first all-in-one chip that's meant specifically for cars. And while its main appeal is in-car entertainment, it can eventually be used to power things like facial recognition for unlocking your car doors, improved 3D navigation and zippy touchscreen performance. It's basically a bundle of raw potential for auto companies.

Qualcomm gave us a glimpse at what the Snapdragon 602A could do with concept cars from Maserati, Honda and Cadillac at CES. The 2015 Maserati Quattroporte GTS concept, which is powered by QNX, featured voice control, LTE, camera-powered rear and side "mirrors" (which are actually screens) and a bevy of sensors to prevent collisions. The Android OS-powered Cadillac XTS included most of those features (except the QNX-driven digital rear and side "mirrors"), as well as an attractive entertainment interface. Sure, these are concepts, but they also show real-world integration of the Snapdragon 602A in existing cars. They're not as fantastical as Mercedes-Benz's futuristic F 015 self-driving car, which won't look anything like what actually ends up on roads.

Qualcomm's head of product management for connected cars, Nilesh Parekh, told us that the rise of mobile has accelerated the company's progress in connected-car tech. "If you look at application processor requirements inside a car, it's very similar to what you need for mobile," he said. "It needs to be power efficient, with a fully integrated CPU, GPU ... and multimedia functions."

While carmakers are now getting their hands on the Snapdragon 602A, Parekh said it likely won't appear in cars until 2016. That's unfortunate, since these concept cars make Qualcomm's vision seem so real, but it's still closer than we've ever been to the future of driving. This year, you can expect some car manufacturers to hype up the connected features of their upcoming cars, even if they won't hit the road until 2016.

QNX's side "mirror" display

When it comes to connected cars, one of the most intriguing companies to keep an eye on this year is BlackBerry. Yes, seriously. Its QNX division has provided software to carmakers for several decades, but after BlackBerry acquired it in 2010, it also ended up serving as the heart of the BB10 operating system. Now, QNX once again seems to be focusing more on cars: In addition to being featured in the Qualcomm Maserati concept, it's also being used by Ford to dramatically modernize its Sync software this year; and it's powering Volkswagen's new in-car platform (which can support both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto controls, and can even park itself).

QNX is notable for being one of the few technology firms working together with the auto industry to transition gracefully into this next wave of connected cars. Its software has been used for years and is known for being reliable and robust, while we're still waiting for newcomers like Android Auto to make their way into cars (which means growing pains are inevitable). If BlackBerry can't manage to claw its way back into mobile relevance, don't be surprised if it ends up focusing more on connected cars in the future.

NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang announcing its CX connected-car platform

What's coming next

We're all eager to sit back and relax in our self-driving cars, but it'll take a while until those hit the road in full force. First, we need to lay the groundwork with a new generation of smarter vehicles. That's something Qualcomm is surely betting on with its Snapdragon 602A chip, but last week at CES, NVIDIA also stepped up with its CX car platform, powered by its latest mobile chip, the powerful Tegra X1. While NVIDIA has dabbled in the connected-car business -- its Tegra K1 chip powered Audi's self-driving concept car last year -- it hasn't had much of an impact yet. The CX could change that.

On stage at NVIDIA's CES keynote last week, co-founder and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang showed off the CX's 3D dashboard interface, which looked even more futuristic than what we've seen from QNX and other platforms. The 3D navigation, in particular, looked like something out of a modern video game, rather than just a car's operating system. And since it's powered by the Tegra X1, it'll likely be able to handle far more complex backseat gaming than other platforms. The X1 was able to run the Unreal Engine 4 "Elemental" demo almost as well as the Xbox One. The gaming performance we've seen from the Snapdragon 602A seemed far more simplistic in comparison. But again, Qualcomm's advantage is that it's actually shipping its chip this year.

After failing to make a big splash with its previous Tegra chips, NVIDIA (just like BlackBerry), may have more success focusing on connected cars. Qualcomm, MediaTek and custom chips from companies like Apple and Samsung already dominate mobile, so it might make more sense for NVIDIA to wedge itself into a market that hasn't yet exploded. The company also has autonomous driving in sight with its PX platform, which is powered by two X1 chips. All of that computing power drives an array of sensors around self-driving cars, allowing them to handle most typical driving situations.

Mercedes' F 015 self-driving concept car

And if you want to look even further ahead into the future, Mercedes' F 015 concept offers an imaginative example of how we might be riding in self-driving cars. It's all about entertainment and comfort: Four lounge seats can swing around and face each other like a train car; massive touchscreens are everywhere; and its sleek body looks like nothing else on the road today. Too bad Mercedes isn't rushing to get this out the door -- it's hoping to get something similar released by 2030.

Sure, we're once again starting off the new year with plenty of car tech announcements that seem too good to be true. But the difference this year is that the dream of the truly connected car is finally beginning to seem like a reality. The pieces are in place; the deals have been made (and more are coming). One thing's for sure: You can expect road-ready connected cars to be the highlight of CES 2016.

[Image credit: NVIDIA (Jen-Hsun Huang)]

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