High-tech concept cars at the Detroit Auto Show

DETROIT— The North American International Auto Show is rife with futuristic-looking vehicles. Unfortunately, most of these vehicles are concept vehicles, so they’re destined for an entire existence behind glass, sectioned off by ropes, or spinning around on moving platforms.

In other words, these cars aren’t in production, and it’s entirely possible that they never will be. They’re automakers’ wildest dreams come to life, and while they’re not necessarily all that practical or marketable, they sure are a lot of fun to look at.

Honda Urban SUV

Let’s start with a concept that’s more than just a concept. Honda’s Urban SUV may actually come to market. The Japanese automaker plans to launch the vehicle by the end of this year in Japan and by early 2014 in the U.S.

Honda
Honda's Urban SUV concept offers the company's Earth Dreams Technology system.

The Urban SUV concept (I’ll call it a concept because Honda is still calling it a concept) is designed in the spirit of Honda: it’s small, “fun to drive,” and fuel-efficient. The concept features Honda’s Earth Dreams Technology, a set of technologies that enhance driving performance and fuel efficiency. The Earth Dreams Technology system debuted in 2011, and it includes a two-motor hybrid system and a high-efficiency powertrain for all-electric vehicles.

Honda says the Urban SUV concept will feature next-generation telematics and connectivity, targeting “active lifestyle customers.” The Urban SUV concept is nine inches shorter than Honda’s current CR-V, which makes it the “ideal size for navigating both crowded city streets and open mountain roads,” according to Honda.

Nissan Resonance

Nissan’s Resonance concept vehicle is similar to Honda’s Urban SUV—it’s a small, yet roomy crossover vehicle with a hybrid electric powertrain and what Nissan calls an “edgy” design. But the coolest part of the Resonance is its aptly-described “futuristic” interior.

Nissan
Nissan likens the interior of its Resonance SUV to a lounge.

Nissan calls the inside of the Resonance a “VIP Lounge,” and that’s not far from the truth. When you enter the vehicle, a special welcoming lighting sequence plays. The interior is all creamy leather and natural wood paneling, which combine to offer up a classy look and feel. But it’s the futuristic, floating instrument panel and head unit that are most eye-catching.

The Resonance’s instrument panel and head unit feature smooth graphics in sleek blue and white. The instrument panel is graphically layered so as to create a holographic-look—in other words, the numbers and gauges appear as if they’re “floating” above the actual panel.

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal
The holographic Nissan Resonance instrument panel comes to life.

The head unit is almost as impressive as Tesla’s 17-inch touchscreen, as the Resonance's screen is large and includes most of the typical physical settings, such as interior temperature and fan control. There are just two physical knobs on the entire head unit, and there even appears to be a small screen facing the back seats for cabin climate control.

Nissan
The Resonance looks pretty good from the outside, but the inside is where the magic happens.

On the outside, the Resonance is fairly sleek and aerodynamic-looking, with boomerang-shaped headlights and an all-glass roof. But it’s the inside that really brings the concept to life.

Volkswagen CrossBlue

Volkswagen’s CrossBlue mid-size SUV concept vehicle is yet another high-tech concept with most of the tech hidden on the inside. The CrossBlue, which was developed specifically for the U.S. and Canada, has a plug-in hybrid powertrain with an estimated fuel economy rating of 89 miles per gallon gasoline equivalent (MPGe).

Melissa Riofrio
The Volkswagen CrossBlue from the outside.

But once again, it’s the inside of this concept that impresses. The six-seater SUV concept has rounded controls that sit flush against the head unit until the driver turns the car on. Then they emerge. The head unit features a 10.2-inch touchscreen, which displays the hybrid status of the vehicle, 3D displays of navigation routes, and media center contents.

Melissa Riofrio
The CrossBlue's 10.2-inch touchscreen displays maps and entertainment features.

Certain stats and gauges remain constant, but the CrossBlue’s instrument cluster is user-programmable, so users can customize their own view. The front-row headrests feature built-in iPad Minis for the entertainment of the rear passengers, and the car features a Fender-branded premium audio system.

Melissa Riofrio
The CrossBlue has iPad Minis embedded in the headrests.

Toyota Fun-Vii

Toyota’s Fun-Vii was designed as an auto show toy, not as a marketable concept, so don’t get too excited about this all-glass, futuristic-looking vehicle. That doesn’t mean that we’ll never see some of the Fun-Vii’s technology on the market. We just won’t see it in Fun-Vii form.

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal
Samsung's color-changing glass lets you "draw" on the Toyota Fun-Vii using a touchscreen.

True to its name, the Fun-Vii (“Vii” stands for Vehicle Interactive Internet) is all kinds of fun. Its exterior is made of a special kind of color-changing glass developed by Samsung. The glass can be changed instantly—in the demo set up at the auto show, a touchscreen allowed users to draw across the car and upload their own pictures to the side of the vehicle in real time.

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal
The first customized TechHive future-mobile!

The Fun-Vii concept is also equipped with vehicle-to-X communication abilities. In a future world where there are other vehicle-to-X cars on the road, the Fun-Vii would be able to communicate with these cars to help prevent collisions. Of course, while the main reason for vehicle-to-X communication is safety, Toyota says that such communication might also let drivers connect with friends driving nearby.

Smart Forstars

Smart
The Smart Forstars packs several concepts (including a projector) in a very compact car.

Smart’s Forstars concept car is both futuristic and retro at the same time. This elongated all-electric Smart car has a projector built into its hood, complete with a pop-up light so you can drive up to a blank wall and create your own drive-in theater. The projector can play movies from your iPhone (iOS-only, at least in concept form) over Bluetooth, and it has a premium speaker system with extra speakers built into the panels behind the doors.

Smart
The Smart Forstars's retro-futuristic instrument panel and steering wheel.

If creating your own mini drive-in theater wasn’t enough to sell you on this concept, the Forstars also has another futuristic feature. Instead of a rearview mirror, the Forstars has what is essentially an iPhone dock. You place your iPhone in the dock, and the car uses cameras to show you what’s behind your vehicle on the phone’s screen. As innovative as the smartphone rearview mirror sounds, it’s not terribly practical. After all, what happens if you lose your phone or if you need to make an emergency call while driving?

Will we ever see these cars on the road?

Some of these concept cars have real-world plans, and the Honda Urban SUV even has a tentative launch date. However, most of them will remain concepts and never be seen on a car lot. For example, Toyota tells us that the funky-looking Fun-Vii was never designed to be a marketable product. Rather, it was designed as a fun concept car that looks cool at an auto show. Mission accomplished.

But just because these exact concepts may not come to market anytime soon (or ever), that doesn’t mean that the tech inside won’t eventually hit the mainstream. “Floating” instrument panels, large touchscreens, built-in tablets, and hood projectors are all features we could see in future vehicles, if not these specific concepts. And while the Fun-Vii will never be available to the public, technology such as Samsung’s color-changing glass will likely make its way into cars somehow, if not on the sides of the car.

For example, Toyota imagines that rear-seat windows could be made of such glass for the purpose of entertaining backseat passengers. The days of drawing pictures or writing your name on a fogged-up car window may be coming to an end.

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