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For now though, driving enthusiasts will have to work the pedals and steering wheels on their own to get down to the L.A. Convention Center, where automakers are unveiling high-tech gadgets that show the future may be closer than it appears.

Nearly 50 vehicles are making their U.S. debut - 24 of them premiering worldwide - this week for the annual industry showcase.

Photographers take pictures of the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG gull wing at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show in Los Angeles, California November 28, 2012.
Photographers take pictures of the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG gull wing at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show in Los Angeles, California November 28, 2012. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The show highlights how automakers are adding cutting- edge technology to assist drivers, even to vehicles at the lower end of the price spectrum.

Cars are coming closer than ever to driving themselves, with automated systems that help motorists avoid hitting pedestrians or wandering out of their lanes, and cameras that monitor blind spots. The vehicles are also making use of more advanced instrument displays, hands-free controls and even talking to drivers through integration with Apple's virtual assistant Siri.

BMW's own slogan could easily apply to the entire show: "The future is closer than you think."

"The displays here at the auto show prove automakers are stepping up their game and developing advanced technologies to meet future needs of both consumers and society," said Jim Lentz, president and CEO of Toyota Motor Sales, USA.

"I'd like to say it will be similar to the Jetsons with flying cars to get us around, but that's probably a bit ambitious. We will, however, see new types of mobility, cleaner, more efficient vehicles and safer cars."

The 10-day event, which opens to the public on Friday, is demonstrating an industry in full comeback mode from the depths of near-bankruptcy that many automakers faced in 2008.

Event spokesman Brendan Flynn said they expect close to 1 million people to attend - up from 920,000 last year - and the attendance trends often reflect the state of the industry's sales. Half of L.A. Auto Show attendees plan to buy a car within the next 12 months, according to a study by Foresight Research.

The show is also presenting at least a dozen clean-diesel vehicles and nearly 20 vehicles that get 40-plus miles to the gallon, with many available for consumer test drives.

"The green technology innovations demonstrated by automakers around the world continue to attract the attention of the car-buying public," L.A. Auto Show general manager Andy Fuzesi said in a written statement.

Across the country today, there are nearly 300 fuel-efficient models on dealership lots, including 40 hybrids, 33 clean diesels and a growing number of plug-ins and pure electric vehicles that achieve 30 miles per gallon or more, Lentz said.

When the economy took a dive, manufacturers were forced to become more efficient in their production lines, according to Rick Wainschel, vice president of Automotive Insights for Autotrader.com.

Futuristic BMW autos are on display for the press on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 at the Los Angeles Convention Center for the L.A. Auto Show. (Mariecar
Futuristic BMW autos are on display for the press on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 at the Los Angeles Convention Center for the L.A. Auto Show. (Mariecar Mendoza/Daily News)

Now that means they can redirect funds into the design and features of their vehicles.

"So you're starting to see really cool technology like voice-activated demands and cars parking themselves," Wainschel said. "And what's cooler is that they're not just in the luxury cars anymore, but in more affordable cars."

Take the Chevrolet Spark, for instance, which General Motors introduced Wednesday with a starting price of $25,000.

The new electric vehicle is the first in North America that can recharge in 20 minutes, and has features such as integration with Siri, as well as MyLink radio that uses a smartphone to access apps like Pandora. 

"There's a ton of technology packed in this vehicle," said Cristi Landy, Chevrolet's marketing director for small cars and electric vehicles. "It really shows you how far we're coming with technology and moving forward."

Toyota is turning to a lesser mode of transportation for inspiration. The company has been working with Microsoft and other firms to design a high-tech motorized skateboard that can be controlled through hand gestures by the user. The company hopes to incorporate aspects of the technology into its vehicles someday.

"The Board of Awesomeness - yes, that's what it's called - is an electric skateboard that is run by hand gestures," Lentz said. "Imagine a dashboard where there are no buttons to push, no screens to tap and your eyes can remain focused on the road."

As an example, Lentz said that when a driver moves his hand up and down, it could lower or raise the radio volume.

"This could potentially work in conjunction with voice recognition which sometimes can be hindered by accents or mispronunciations," he said. "Hand gestures are pretty universal."

Toyota is also finding some inspiration from Harry Potter, Lentz said. The company's engineers are working with researchers from Keio University in Japan on their own version of an "invisibility cloak." The optical camouflage technology would help eliminate blind spots, making it seem as if the back seat of the vehicle is transparent.

"How it works seems like magic, but the cloak is made of reflective materials that capture footage from cameras behind the car, which then projects the image onto the cloak visible to the driver," he said. "The illusion of invisibility is amazing. One of the developers said it will feel like you're driving a glass car."

Then there is Toyota's INSECT that Lentz called "our version of Herbie the Love Bug, but highly updated and tricked out" equipped with "a bevy of technologies like motion sensors, voice recognition and behavior predictions."

Other manufacturers such as Nissan are working toward having "virtually zero" accidents, equipping their vehicles with steering wheels that swerve on their own to avoid a pedestrian stepping out in front of the car.

Volvo announced that in 2014 it will offer a traffic-jam assistance system allowing cars to automatically follow the car ahead in traffic moving as much as 30 mph.

And BMW is introducing a pure electric vehicle, the BMWi3, made primarily of carbon fiber that gets about 100 miles before requiring a recharge. Its sportier counterpart, the BMWi8 Concept, is a hybrid that can accelerate from 0-62 mph in under 5 seconds, but still gets 80 miles per gallon, Sattig said.

"With the BMWi we are now addressing the changing demands in customer behavior, especially in sustainable and individual mobility," said Manuel Sattig, communication manager for BMWi.

"It's very important for a company like us to take one step further into the future."


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