The Chicago Auto Show is getting to be as much for tech geeks as car enthusiasts.
Many of the 1,000 vehicles on display will be tricked out with sensors, wireless connectivity, hands-free controls and lightweight infrastructure.
“Consumers will see a renaissance in the auto industry, with a lot more vehicles of interest to a broader range of people than they’ve seen in quite a while,” says Jamey Power, an automotive consultant whose father, Dave, founded J.D. Power & Associates.
Michael Biltz, director of Accenture’s Technology Vision R&D group, says automakers are letting consumers have more say-so in vehicle design. Examples include General Motors letting select developers create mobile apps for its OnStar service and Arizona-based Local Motors using crowdsourcing to develop sustainable car designs.
“Innovation is the buzzword . . .and carmakers are looking to consumers to help them innovate,” Biltz says.
Consumers can get up close and personal with these cutting-edge tech highlights on the show floor:
††Alternative-energy vehicles are available in more car models than ever, creating greater competition for the four dominant players: the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, Prius PHV and Tesla Model S.
They’re also becoming more affordable. For example, Nissan said it lowered the price of its base model Leaf by $6,400 in part because it moved production to Tennessee from Japan. The 2014 Chevy Volt is priced $5,000 less than the year before, now under $30,000, largely because of people searching online for cars under $35,000.
Ford will show off a solar-powered concept compact, the C-Max Energi, as well as a hybrid Fusion plug-in sedan with seat fabrics made from the same plant-based material used in Coca-Cola bottles.
BMW will debut a diesel-powered version of its main sedan and show off its first mass-produced electric car, the i3, with a carbon-fiber chassis replacing the conventional steel.
††Ford’s F-150 pickup truck — the best-selling truck in America for 37 years — is now made with aluminum body panels instead of traditional steel parts. The truck’s frame is still high-strength steel.
The aluminum model weighs 700 pounds less than its steel-based predecessor and will be the most fuel-efficient version yet (it is not yet rated, but reports say the goal is to get 30 mpg on the highway).
“The F-150 is undertaking the biggest transformation in the history of the full-sized pickup business,” says Doug Scott, truck group marketing manager for Ford in Dearborn, Mich.
Though aluminum is more expensive than steel, Scott says aluminum is “infinitely recyclable.”
A looming concern is how expensive the truck will be to repair if it’s dented. Ford says the truck is more dent-resistant than ever and is offering its dealers a 20 percent rebate, up to $10,000, to buy the equipment to repair the truck.
Ford also will show off a 2015 Mustang with an engine cover developed by 3-D printing. The 3-D printing method saves time and money.
††Specialty Publishing, owner of Connected World magazine, is hosting its first pavilion at the auto show to showcase how motorists of the future can connect their cars to their homes, doctors, health monitors and to other vehicles.
The 20,000-square-foot pavilion will feature displays of near field communication, or NFC.
Certain smartphone users tap or wave their phones over an NFC chip to launch applications. One tap of an NFC-enabled Android or BlackBerry phone — Apple iPhones use a separate protocol called iBeacon and cannot be used — can access information and demonstrations of products at the show such as a Berkeley Varitronics receiver that detects cellphone use by distracted drivers.
Show-goers will get to use the NFC technology to vote on their favorite car brand.
††Safety systems are getting smarter. The systems on a variety of models will steer and brake when they detect obstacles that could lead to accidents. Certain cars now stay a set distance away from a vehicle traveling ahead. Even small cars now have blind-spot alerts and back-up cameras.
††The expansion of voice command technology, a previously expensive luxury. Dedicated voice-command systems that work through the car are now available on the Dodge Dart SXT and Nissan Versa Note SV, the latter as part of an $800 tech package.
Another form of in-car navigation lets the motorist download a navigation app for $50, as seen in the Chevy Spark and Chevy Sonic RS and the 2015 Honda Fit.
Tom Appel, publisher of Consumer Guide Automotive, in Libertyville, says the good news is that tech-savvy and iPhone-generation car browsers can now plug phones into virtually every model on the show floor.
“If you plug your iPhone into a car, it’s all very familiar,” he said. “It’s plug and play.”