The Shiny New Thing At This Year’s Detroit Auto Show Preview Wasn’t A Car – Forbes

Posted: Friday, January 13, 2017
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Ford Chairman Bill Ford (center) and CEO Mark Fields discuss the company’s vision for the “City of Tomorrow” with moderator Walter Isaacson (left). (Ford photo)

The press preview for the 2017 North American International Auto Show at Detroit’s Cobo Center was a strange affair, dominated not by sexy sheet metal but by talk of crowded cities, self-driving cars and the impact of ride-hailing services.

Ford Motor, for instance, held a press conference that didn’t have any vehicle news, other than some modest improvements to its popular F-150 pickup and a promise to bring back its Ranger pickup and Bronco SUV in a couple of years. Not even a photo or snippet of detail about these upcoming vehicles was provided.

Instead, Ford staged a talk show segment with top executives to discuss the future of mobility. At the end, when journalists typically swarm to snap photos of the newly revealed models, they were instead invited to an empty stage. It was a bit surreal. Ford spent the rest of the day cocooned in nearby Joe Louis Arena, with invited guests talking about the future of cities.

Meanwhile, on the lower level of Cobo, there was a concurrent technology exhibit and seminar series dubbed Automobili-D (a play on Detroit’s current nickname, “the D”). I was beginning to wonder if I’d wandered into a technology conference rather than the auto show.

In one interview after another, executives talked of the changes rapidly overtaking their industry, and the enabling technologies like artificial intelligence, more powerful sensors and sophisticated algorithms.

It’s an interesting exercise: talking with automakers about how they plan to future-proof their companies. Sure, transportation is changing, and probably faster than many people thought.

But I was struck by my conversation with John Mendel, American Honda’s top U.S. sales executive, who cautioned that what really matters is what customers want.

“Everybody’s pushing to be first,” he said. “We’ll be there when the consumer is ready.”

So while it’s likely that in just a few years we’ll be able to take our hands off the wheel of a semi-autonomous car during long stretches of freeway driving, or that a driverless taxi might shuttle us around certain urban centers, the vast majority of people will continue to buy or lease a car the way they always have. And that’s not going to change for the next 10 or 15 years — at least.

And if it seems the hardware might have been overshadowed by the software at this year’s show, the cars and trucks still matter. There were no breakthrough stunners as in past years like the Ford GT supercar. Just a bunch of terrific cars and crossovers that real people will buy:

  • a sportier Toyota Camry, America’s best-selling sedan
  • a stylish and safe Chevrolet Traverse for families
  • a beautifully sculpted GMC Terrain mid-sized crossover
  • a redesigned Honda Odyssey minivan, with features to keep families connected
  • an all-new Kia Stinger sports sedan that redefines the Korean brand
  • a dramatically redesigned Lexus LS flagship
  • a larger and more appealing Volkswagen Tuareg crossover
  • a kid brother to the Nissan Rogue crossover called the Rogue Sport

Autos shows are for consumers, after all. And they’re still buying cars and trucks in record numbers.

Detroit’s auto show opens Saturday, Jan. 14, and runs through Jan. 22.

 

Follow me on Twitter @JoannMuller

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