Industry trends gleaned from the Detroit auto show
DETROIT — This year’s North American International Auto Show reflects an industry that’s flush with cash but uncertain about the future.
Multimillion-dollar displays show new versions of big sellers, including the Toyota Camry, GMC Terrain and Honda Odyssey. New technology, from gesture controls in BMWs to further advances in self-driving cars, is
everywhere. Auto companies are making big promises, such as
Volvo’s goal of preventing all fatal crashes in its vehicles by 2020.
But there could be bumps ahead. U.S. sales are leveling off, and the Trump administration could change the rules on trade. It’s not yet clear which companies will be the winners in a future of car-sharing and self-driving.
“The ground is so unstable beneath them right now,” said Karl Brauer, a senior director of content at Kelley Blue Book.
Here’s what we learned at the Detroit auto show:
Plateauing sales: After a seven-year streak of sales increases and record sales of 17.55 million in 2016, U.S. sales of new cars and trucks are expected to slow down slightly in 2017. Automakers are counting on new vehicles, gadgets and must-have technology to fuel demand. At the auto show, BMW is showing off a 5 Series with gesture controls, which let drivers control volume and other functions with hand signals. Lexus’ new LS sedan has seats that give occupants Shiatsu massages. Multiple automakers are introducing vehicles that will brake automatically to avoid an accident.
Trump effect: President-elect Donald Trump and his Twitter threats to tax Mexican auto imports were the talk of the show. General Motors, Volkswagen and Nissan said they won’t change production plans. Toyota warned that the price of a U.S.-built Camry could rise by $1,000 if Trump taxes auto parts from Mexico. But AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson said Trump could help the industry by easing expensive regulations and lowering corporate taxes. He also thinks Trump will tread carefully with border taxes. “He will be a failure if he hurts consumers or companies,” Jackson said.
Tech tussle: Waymo, Google’s self-driving car division, reiterated that it doesn’t plan to make its own cars but wants to partner with established auto companies and others. Waymo announced the development of an in-house system of sensors and radars and showed off a self-driving minivan it has developed with Fiat Chrysler. Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne says it makes sense for smaller companies to hook up with Waymo instead of developing self-driving platforms of their own. But other automakers, including Nissan and Ford, insist they will go it alone, partly because they don’t want
Waymo to own all the customer data that can be collected from self-driving vehicles.
Mobility moves: Automakers aren’t just developing self-driving cars. They’re trying to figure out where they fit in a world of car-sharing and ride-hailing. Ford said it’s working with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others to help cities plan for future transportation trends. Nissan has joined a similar group, 100 Resilient Cities, to help future city planning.
China’s coming: Volvo and Buick are already selling Chinese-built vehicles in the U.S. But so far, no Chinese automaker has managed to crack the U.S. market, where tough safety regulations and dealer franchise laws can be a barrier for newcomers. Guangzhou Automobile Group hopes to change that. GAC unveiled three new vehicles at the auto show, including a plug-in hybrid, and said it plans to sell a five-passenger SUV in the U.S. by 2019.
Nostalgia factor: Automakers are tugging at buyers’ heartstrings. Volkswagen is showing a prototype based on its iconic 1960s minibus. Dubbed the ID Buzz, it’s an electric van that goes 270 miles on a charge. Ford announced the return of the Bronco, the rugged SUV — and O.J. Simpson chase vehicle — which was last sold in 1996.