by Danny Shapiro

Few American businesses are as iconic as the auto industry. And despite enormous recent challenges, U.S. carmakers are poised for their next great run.

Already, General Motors has reclaimed its position as the world’s No. 1 automaker. Domestic auto sales hit 12.8 million last year, their best since 2008. And Ford has increased U.S. market share for three years running.

The Ford Conference and Events Center

To maintain this momentum, American carmakers will need to keep their foot on the gas. For a bit of help, they need look no further than another icon of American business, the IT industry.

This week, NVIDIA went on the road to demonstrate just how Silicon Valley and Detroit could work together to fuel the next phase of automotive innovation.

Speaking at a major internal event at Ford, NVIDIA senior vice president Dan Vivoli said, “We’re at a flashpoint in our industries — the convergence of consumer electronics and automotive electronics is happening right now.”

Silicon injected

At the Ford Event and Conference Center, in Dearborn, Mich., NVIDIA showcased its latest processor technologies, which power everything from the CAD software that designers use to style cars to the infotainment systems that drivers use to map their trips and listen to music. At the center of all of this high tech, a brilliant green Ford Mustang rotated on the display turntable.

The interactive iGi powerwall

A highlight of these demonstrations was NVIDIA’s Maximus technology, which allows designers and engineers to do graphics-intensive work and compute-intensive work at the same time, on the same machine. For example, a car designer can style a rearview mirror while getting accurate simulation of airflow at various speeds .

Also at the conference center, the high-resolution projection system mavens from IGI built a massive power wall running on Quadro GPUs to display a larger-than-life Ford Focus, styled with RTT software, which enables designers to interact with their designs and visualize them in real-world settings. A massive 82” multi-touch viz wall like you’d see on CNN, was shown by Perceptive Pixel. A variety of digital instrument clusters powered by Tegra provided a look into the future dashboard. And Dirt 3, a driving game with stunning realism that was highlighted in Vivoli’s keynote, drove home the close relationship between gaming and professional graphics.

Among the most compelling machines on display was an Audi A6 sedan, sporting an award-winning MMI infotainment system powered by an NVIDIA processor, which offers a glimpse of what “Silicon Motown” could come to stand for…

Navigating the future

Car connectivity technologies made a big splash at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It’s no wonder. Nearly three-fifths of car buyers aged 19 to 31 view in-car connectivity as the most important aspect of a car’s interior, according to a recent Deloitte survey.

A larger view of the exhibit hall

And Harman recently found that more than four-fifths of car commuters want a navigation system that provides real-time traffic updates, as well as voice control of their car’s infotainment systems.

For consumers and manufacturers alike, the holy grail is to bridge the gap between consumer electronics and automotive electronics. Great strides have been made in in-car connectivity, but consumer electronics evolves much faster than the average life of a car. Vivoli argued that this will change.

“By bringing the pace of the PC industry to the car industry, we can redefine the car electronically,” he promised.

Vivoli noted that NVIDIA processors — the cutting-edge technology in today’s smartphones and tablets — will soon drive the infotainment systems in more than 100 car models from 20 brands, including Audi, Lamborghini, BMW, Tesla Motors, Maserati and Rolls Royce.

Moreover, NVIDIA’s Visual Computing Module technology will allow automakers to upgrade to the latest Tegra processor so that their systems can stay in-step with the breakneck pace of consumer electronics. With NVIDIA mobile super chips, updating a car’s infotainment system and customizing its digital instrument cluster will someday be as simple as downloading the latest app.