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A high-tech year ahead for automakers

Audi will light the way for the increasingly high-tech auto industry next week when it introduces its Sport Quattro Laserlight Concept vehicle at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The CES extravaganza has traditionally been the place where techies track breakthroughs in TV, smartphone and computer technologies, but in recent years cars have been an increasing focus. It's no wonder, considering that some of today's cars likely have more microprocessing power than the most sophisticated homes.

Technology is transforming virtually every aspect of the automobile, from engines to headlights—and even the mundane windshield wiper. Some of the year's biggest breakthroughs will make their debut at the CES and the 2014 North American International Auto Show, or NAIAS, which follows a week later in Detroit.

The Audi Sport Quattro Laserlight offers a good example of just how broad the automotive technology revolution has become.

Its muscular yet windswept body was developed entirely on a computer-aided design system that can simulate not only high-speed airflow but different crash scenarios. Its power comes from a plug-in hybrid drivetrain that, even while producing a jaw-dropping 700 horsepower, is expected to yield as much as 94 mpg and a 31-mile range on battery power alone.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: Audi Takes a Laser Focus to Laserlight Concept Vehicle)

Its headlights combine state-of-the-art LED low beams with even more advanced laser high beams. Audi has said the high beams yield "approximately twice the lighting range and three times the luminosity of LED high beam lights." That translates into a beam that can light an obstacle nearly a third of a mile ahead.

With tough new mileage standards rapidly approaching in 2016, and even more stringent rules set for 2025, some of the biggest technological developments are taking place under the hood. Virtually every major automaker now offers at least one conventional hybrid vehicle, and a growing number are rolling out new plug-in and pure battery-electric vehicles.

Ford Motor will bring to CES its prototype C-Max Solar Energi, a version of the plug-in "people mover" now in dealer showrooms. In this case, however, the maker says buyers would be able to ditch the plug thanks to a new "concentrator" technology that could boost the amount of energy harvested from the sun and be used to recharge the show car's batteries.

(More from The Detroit Bureau: Ford's Solar Energi Plug-In Hybrid Runs on Sun Power)

At the Detroit Auto Show, meanwhile, Toyota will stage the North American debut of its new fuel-cell vehicle prototype. A production version of the hydrogen-powered vehicle is scheduled to go on sale in 2015—though Hyundai plans to beat the Japanese giant to market with a fuel cell version of its Tucson crossover set for launch this spring.

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