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The unstoppable advent of the connected car

CES 2012 proved that not only do cars and electronics go hand in hand, but that the trend of connecting cars to the Internet has serious momentum.

Audi A3 dashboard
Audi brings its connected Google Earth integration into the A3 at CES 2012. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

LAS VEGAS--Sporting booths and displays suitable for a full-fledged car show, major automakers showed off their varying connected car strategies at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show.

But the automaker displays at CES only held a smattering of cars, the space primarily being taken up by standalone dashboards and kiosks showing in-car navigation, audio, phone, and app screens. I never doubted the benefits of data feeds in cars, as integrating Google search with a navigation system is far better than relying on some static, outdated points-of-interest database.

Knowing the glacial pace of automotive development, what surprised me was how quickly automakers are embracing the new technology. Over the past three years, CES has seen more and more participation from major automakers.

Ford jumped on the electronics bandwagon early, and now makes its annual pilgrimage to CES an occasion on which to announce yet more advancements in the electronics it will offer customers. This year was no different, seeing more apps and functionality added to Ford's Sync AppLink system. Ford also showed off the recent update to its MyFord Touch cabin tech interface.

Mercedes-Benz Mbrace2 apps
Mercedes-Benz's Mbrace2 telematics system brings Facebook, Yelp, and Google search into the car. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

GM was also here, pushing its OnStar telematics system as its connected car spearhead. The company will open that system up to third-party app developers. Kia and Hyundai were also on the grounds, Kia showing its Uvo voice command system and Hyundai demoing Blue Link. Chrysler showed off cars and dashboards in its UConnect booth, the umbrella name for its cabin technology.

Audi, which has already made strides in the connected-car space, showed that it wasn't leaving the cars at the bottom of its lineup behind. It showed off new cabin electronics for its A3 model that surpass what it released in the much pricier A7 model last year.

New on the premises this year was Mercedes-Benz, which made its presence known via a keynote speech from Chairman Dieter Zetsche. Its booth not only held the all-new SL-Class roadster, which made an appearance at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit the same week; the company also highlighted its new Mbrace2 telematics system, which includes apps such as Yelp and Facebook.

These companies represent the incredible momentum of the connected car, and not just for the luxury, high-end market, but for most drivers. Certainly these new, connected systems need to be integrated safely, which is a major push from the automakers as well, but they are coming. The apps people use every day on their smartphones are finding a place in the dashboard, making it easy to find new restaurants, connect with friends, and access online music and podcasts.