The buzz at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit has been different than in previous years during the US auto industry’s seven-year recovery. At NAIAS 2017, there’s just not as much excitement around individual new models and features as usual.
This year, the talk is all about connectivity, self-driving, electrification—and trade policies.
To be sure, there are a number of exciting vehicles that automakers unveiled in Detroit over the past few days, and which the local general public will begin seeing on Saturday.
These include a new, eight-seat version of the Chevrolet Traverse SUV, the Mercedes-Benz world premiere for a new E-Class coupe, a concept for an Audi Q8 SUV that will be produced soon, the soon-to-be-produced Ford GT sports car, a new version of the iconic Toyota Camry, and a new version of the Honda Odyssey minivan.
The Chevrolet Bolt EV won all sorts of awards, including being named North American Car of the Year by the show. Chevy now is gearing up marketing of its mainstream-priced all-electric vehicle with 238-mile range, as it begins selling them nationwide over the next several months.
But beyond those smatterings around specific and upcoming vehicles, three things emerged clearly from the press preview.
Connected and Self-Driving Cars
Every carmaker and major supplier is going to bring us self-driving automobiles as quickly as they possibly can, whether or not we want them. The new NAIAS AutoMobili-D exhibition was designed specifically to highlight these mobility trends. And it’s not just automotive brands—major supplier brands—including Adient, ZF and Yanfeng—touted digital and connective systems that they’d like to see automakers use for automated vehicles.
EVs will take over the world sooner or later. Nearly every automotive brand nodded to more electrification of its fleet, even at a time of relatively low gasoline prices and tepid consumer demand for EVs. They posited that vehicles like Bolt, the spate of new offerings from German luxury brands, and Tesla—with its upcoming Model 3—will soon push the market past the tipping point.
Donald Trump has really gotten inside the heads of automotive CEOs. Many, including General Motors chief Mary Barra and Fiat Chrysler head Sergio Marchionne, openly worried that the president-elect doesn’t appreciate the difficulty of running a global automaker nor the complexities of international trade regulations.
But others parried with a more optimistic view of what the industry can expect from the new occupant in the White House. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, for one, credited Trump for a few things, including helping spark US consumer confidence.
“Obviously whenever there is a new administration coming, particularly in the second-largest car market in the world, everyone is anxious and everyone is listening—that’s predictable,” Ghosn told NAIAS. “Trump said America comes first, and ‘I want jobs in the US.’ That makes a lot of sense [to] us—a lot of countries in the world want to promote [themselves] first.”
Ghosn suggested that every auto company could adapt to new trade rules if they were uniformly enforced. For a long time, he said, “The rules have been NAFTA. And we all adapted to it.” After January 20, he said, “It will be something else—fine, as long as the rules are the same for everyone.”
And there was more. Ghosn said that “the only thing that can be reasonably expected from the new administration is to maintain [high] consumer confidence. That’s it. And by the way, [such sentiments are] very high in January … It looks now like 2017 will be better than 2016” for US auto sales. That expectation that would have been considered hopelessly optimistic just a few months ago.
Throw in the fact that Trump wants to cut corporate taxes, Ghosn said, and “all of this is going to go in the direction of boosting growth” and creating “great things for the industry.”