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Introducing the World's Smartest Cars

By Tamara Walsh – Jan 14, 2014 at 10:29AM

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A look at how technology is revolutionizing the auto industry, and one company at the forefront of this change.

Smart car technology was front and center at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week. From vehicles equipped with radar and forward cameras capable of reading street signs to real-time driver assistance and collision avoidance programs, the future of driving has arrived. Here's an inside look at some of the most exciting emerging car technology to come out of CES 2014, and at one auto company whose smart tech is already on the roads today.

Driving innovation forward
's Mercedes Benz demonstrated how its cars could communicate with Google (GOOGL -7.68%) Glass and other wearable tech devices. Daimler has been working with the tech titan since early 2013 to create what Mercedes calls a "door to door navigation system" for its cars. A driver can enter an address through Glass and find that the Mercedes would then automatically transfer her to the car's onboard route guidance -- creating a seamless transition between Google Glass and the car.

Mercedes drivers would also be able to utilize the pedestrian navigation feature of the Glass to locate their cars if they forget where they have parked. Aside from the obvious benefits for Mercedes drivers, the integration may also be a boon to Google as it aims to get its wearable tech into as many industries as possible.

Meanwhile, Ford (F -0.22%) kicked things off at CES by introducing its C-Max solar energy concept car. Using high-efficiency solar cells from SunPower, Ford's C-Max Solar Energi prototype hopes to one day enable EV drivers to cut the charging cord and deliver power solely through onboard solar panels. Additionally, SunPower's cells can reportedly gather 50% more energy over the same surface area as conventional cells, according to an article on the site, Extreme Tech.

Ford's concept works by utilizing 16 square feet of solar panels attached to the vehicle's roof as well as a lens that acts as a magnifying glass to increase the amount of solar energy by eight times. This would allow Ford's C-Max Energi to recharge using only light from the sun. After seven hours of sun exposure, the battery would be able to power the EV for an estimated 21 miles before the gas engine would take over.

Source: Ford Motor Company

Nevertheless, the Ford C-Max Solar Energi is still a concept car, and not yet in production. In fact, Ford still needs to test the vehicle in numerous real-world scenarios before knowing if it's even feasible as a production car. However, Tesla Motors (TSLA 2.28%) is putting solar to work today in very real ways today with its growing Supercharger network. Tesla's supercharging stations use solar canopies to harness the sun's energy. Perhaps, more importantly, these stations enable Tesla Model S drivers to recharge half the capacity of a Model S battery (roughly 150 miles) in as little as 20 minutes.

Tesla currently has 58 Supercharger stations up and running today in North America, with plans to have 80% of the U.S. population and parts of Canada covered by the end of the year. Not only do these Superchargers allow Tesla drivers to recharge basically for free, but thanks to a strategic partnership with SolarCity (SCTY.DL), the stations also put more energy back into the grid.

SolarCity installs solar panels and helps both commercial and residential customers finance them. This has helped SolarCity remain immune to cost pressures that have dragged down other solar companies, because unlike industry peers, SolarCity doesn't manufacture the panels. Looking ahead, solar companies like SolarCity and SunPower should continue to shine as more auto giants like Ford and Tesla turn to solar energy to power the future.

The best of today
As you can see, unlike the concept cars and prototypes showcased at CES last week, Tesla's Model S is one smart car that's already on the road today. Similar to a computer, the Model S can receive software updates over a WiFi connection that improve the car's performance or fix bugs. After the recent battery fires, for example, Tesla issued an "over-the-air update" that raises the suspension of the car at highway speeds.

Because the vehicles can receive such over-the-air, software updates, Tesla's customers don't need to bring their cars into a service center. The Model S is so smart, in fact, that it periodically monitors its health and can alert Tesla, with a driver's permission, about potential problems. What's more, the car's 17-inch touchscreen display will notify the driver when an update is released -- that way a Tesla Model S is always current with the latest features and technology.

Fool contributor Tamara Rutter owns shares of Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool recommends Ford, Google, SolarCity, and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford, Google, SolarCity, and Tesla Motors. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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