The line between old-school automotive engineering and gee-whiz technology has blurred so much that Toyota won't unveil its upcoming hydrogen fuel-cell "concept car" at an auto show but instead at the mecca of tech gadgetry, January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Even though the sleek FCV (fuel cell vehicle) concept car will only be available in California beginning sometime in 2015 -- its cutting-edge technology is specifically aimed at Silicon Valley (along with Los Angeles and San Diego) -- Toyota sees the Nevada desert as the perfect venue to unveil its revolutionary car to America, where it's expected to have a range of 310 miles.
"This is going to be a big deal and CES is the biggest trade show in the world of any kind and it draws a global, tech-oriented audience," said John Hanson, national manager of advanced technology and business communications for Toyota Motor Sales USA. "It is a legitimate and logical launching pad for advanced technology in the automobile business."
Toyota's hydrogen fuel-cell idea represents just one piece of the technology revolution that's changing the way drivers interact with their cars -- while allowing their vehicles to anticipate problems faster than humans.
The best-selling brands in Northern California are expanding their safety and gadget upgrades throughout their 2014 lineups. More cars, trucks and SUVs than ever before will allow drivers to set their cruise controls to maintain a cushion from the next closest vehicle and automatically slow down when they get too close; alert them when another driver is in their blind spot; and give warnings when they drift into a lane occupied by another car -- or are about to back into oncoming traffic.
For its 2014 models, GM is sharing its Cadillac technology with its Buick, Chevrolet and GMC brands so drivers will see an icon in the windshield and get a buzzing in their seat -- either on the left or on the right side -- when the driver veers either left or right.
"Cadillac's had so many firsts and now we're expanding that adaptive cruise and accident avoidance technology to all four brands," said Shad Balch, GM product manager based in Thousand Oaks.
For its 2014 models, Ford is also expanding its turbocharged, fuel economy "EcoBoost" technology to more models, which includes a 2013 option that shuts off the engine of automatic transmission cars at stops to save even more fuel.
"When the light turns green, the car seamlessly starts back up," said Robert Louisell, business development specialist in Ford's San Francisco region. Ford estimates that its "Auto Start-Stop" technology improves fuel efficiency by about 3.5 percent.
Ford also is expanding its popular "MyKey" feature to more vehicles in the Ford fleet. It allows parents to give one key to their teenage children that limits both the car's speed and stereo volume to pre-set limits. The audio system also stays on mute until all of the seat belts are fastened. The key also activates "more vigorous alerts for the safety system and can't be deactivated," Louisell said.
Only the parents' master key can be used to disable or adjust the speed and volume limits.
Like other major brands, Toyota and Lexus also are expanding their collision avoidance, blind spot and cross-traffic alert systems to more models -- the 2014 Toyota Tundra and Highlander and to most Lexus vehicles.
They're also equipping more models with each brand's multimedia audio and navigation systems called "Entune" in Toyota, "Enform" in Lexus and "BeSpoke" in Scion.
The systems are now available in 13 models and come in four different versions -- from basic audio controls to a high-end model that allows for GPS navigation and an app suite -- all with no subscription fees.
The free, downloadable apps work on IOS and Android devices and link through Bluetooth to the vehicles' head units. Drivers or passengers can then access iHeartRadio, Pandora Internet radio, Facebook Places, Yelp, MovieTickets.com, Bing and OpenTable to make restaurant reservations.
Vehicle technology -- for both safety and for gadget convenience -- is evolving so quickly that new car buyers will be surprised at how many options are available in so many 2014 models across all brands, said Toyota's Hanson.
"We need to acclimate consumers to all of this technology," Hanson said. "For somebody who last bought a car five years ago, the array of technology and the things your car can do for you are mind-boggling."
Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.
Smarter, safer, tech-friendly cars
Increased technology in cars:
More 2014 cars, trucks and SUVs are now equipped with systems that allow drivers and passengers to use electronic devices more safely in their vehicles.
Other systems alert drivers to potential collisions through cruise controls that maintain a pre-set distance from the nearest vehicle, then brake automatically if the distance closes -- and flash icons or tones when other vehicles appear in blind spots, when the driver veers into another lane or backs into oncoming traffic.
In 2014, Toyota will unveil a hydrogen fuel-cell concept car, with an expected range of 310 miles.