Hey, who’s got the wheel?

Pity the poor parking valet who may join typewriter repair people in the unemployment line of the future.

That’s just one thought that is conjured while riding shotgun in a late-model Chevy Tahoe that’s driving itself through a parking lot obstacle course.

Another is wondering whether security guards at a nearby gate worry if engineers got all the bugs out of the artificial intelligence that is controlling the multiton sport utility vehicle bearing down on their posts.

Then there are selfish concerns, such as envisioning how much easier it is to talk on the phone, read, dine or nap when somebody — or something — else is responsible for steering the car.

“People are saying maybe driving is the distraction,” said Larry Burns, vice president of research, development and planning for General Motors Corp.

The Tahoe twisting itself between orange cones and garbage cans in the parking lot outside the Las Vegas Convention Center was just one example of the growing presence of car companies at the International Consumer Electronics Show.

BMW had erected grandstands nearby for viewing Formula One cars racing on a track. Another company showed off a fleet of SUVs featuring broadband Internet access. A Ford official joined Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates on stage earlier this week to announce a partnership between the car and software firms.

And Burns’ boss, GM CEO Rick Wagoner, on Tuesday became the first automobile executive to deliver a keynote address at CES, the world’s biggest electronic gadget show.

Big American car companies are struggling to maintain market share while foreign companies such as Toyota Motor Corp. gain ground with younger, environmentally conscious consumers.

Leaders of GM and Ford think CES is a good place to show off technology they believe will help them forge a connection with modern customers.

“Cars are going to become electronics driven,” Burns said. “There is a five- to 10-year window.”

The Tahoe is packed with computers, sensors, global positioning equipment and other gadgets it uses to create a three-dimensional picture of the world around it. It navigates itself based on that picture.

The technology was advanced enough to move itself through a 60-mile test of urban traffic, houses and obstacles in less than six hours.

Burns says consumers already have access to the kind of technology on the Tahoe, nicknamed Boss, in the form of assisted cruise control, smart traction and braking features.

“This is stuff that is already real,” he said.

Researcher Jarrod Snider, who worked on the car, is less optimistic about the short-term prospects.

“It is more expensive than it is practical,” Snider said, a reference to hardware that includes sensors Burns said cost as much as $60,000 each. “A lot of it is getting people to trust it. A lot of people don’t trust machines.”

In addition to the self-driving Tahoe, an experiment in artificial intelligence, lasers, cameras and sensors assembled by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, GM showed off a fleet of hydrogen fuel cell-powered Chevy Equinox SUVs.

The fuel-cell vehicles require no fossil fuel and emit only water vapor. The company is poised to release test versions to a group of about 100 journalists, celebrities, public officials and regular drivers.

The test, called Project Driveway, is an attempt to gauge how the vehicles work for daily driving.

“The point is putting a real vehicle in the hands of real customers,” said Angela Coletti, GM’s “driver relationship manager.”

Coletti’s job is to act as a liaison between the drivers and GM.

“We want to know everything,” she said.

Researchers also want cars to communicate with each other. That would, for example, make it possible for a car heading through a mountain pass to relay information about speed, traffic, weather and road conditions to cars behind it. The information could allow trailing cars to alert their drivers to upcoming hazards such as ice and snow and activate features like traction control.

Then there are the fun features.

Much of the automotive focus at CES is on getting cars to communicate with personal electronics like iPods, electronic navigators, cell phones and BlackBerrys.

Some see the ultimate goal to be cars that instantly recognize whatever devices drivers carry with them.

“They need to think about how I use my (consumer electronic) devices,” said Andy Wehmeyer, product marketing manager for the Harman Consumer Group, an aftermarket component firm.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or (702) 477-3861.

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