It may be cold in Detroit as the city plays host to the 2018 North American International Auto Show, but it could be wild weather including last fall’s hurricanes and the more recent fires in California that are still being felt by the auto industry. Weather most certainly played a factor in the 2 percent decline in new vehicle sales in the second-largest automobile market in the world last year – the first decline since 2009.
Worldwide car sales were down 10.9 percent last year while sales of SUVs and trucks rose 4.3 percent (Source: Autodata report).
This is why carmakers are ever more focused on pickup trucks and SUVs to correct the course. General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler all showcased new pickup trucks at the show, while brands not readily associated with SUVs – including BMW and even Lamborghini – highlighted new models.
The Jeep Cherokee has gotten a redesign that puts it more in line with the rest of Chrysler’s crossover SUVs, but more importantly, allowed the vehicle to drop 200 pounds in an effort to improve performance efficiency.
This could be crucial to addressing issues on the road ahead, especially as SUVs and trucks tend to remain gas guzzlers, and reaching European targets for emissions may be no small task.
In recent years the annual International CES – formerly the Consumer Electronics Show – in Las Vegas has beaten Detroit to the punch with new automotive technology news, which may be why NAIAS has increasingly embraced technology.
This was present on the show floor as Mercedes and Ford offered virtual reality-based presentations that put drivers in virtual vehicles rather than real ones, and how “autonomous” – as in driverless – was one of the big buzzwords at the show. In addition to the showcases from the major automotive makers, the show featured an entire second floor of offerings from startups looking to introduce tomorrow’s automotive tech.
The Michigan Economic Development Corporation played a significant role in supporting “Automobili-D,” the second year for an event that brought more than 50 startups from around the world to Detroit. These companies included firms that are working to develop technology in one of five categories: the connected car, autonomous driving, e-mobility, mobility services and smartcities. Automobili-D also included a presence from universities and other centers of learning from Michigan and neighboring states, as well as Canada.
This emphasis on the road to driverless cars was noted on Sunday, Jan. 14, in a keynote address by U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who told attendees that the government would introduce updated guidelines this summer for autonomous vehicles. This will be the third set of voluntary guidelines for autonomous vehicles issued by the federal government since it introduced the first set back in 2016.
Chao called on upon automotive executives as well as those in the media to educate the public on the future of driving and noted security and safety remain a concern.
“The public and the private sectors have an obligation to lead by safely developing, testing and integrating this new technology into our transportation systems,” Chao said. “We’ve got to work together to ensure that our country retains its eminent position as a global technology leader.”
Electric cars were also on display, but whether this will be embraced remains questionable. Currently, these represent less than 1 percent of the market and have largely been successful with high-end American buyers. Even the automakers – notably Germany’s BMW and Mercedes – have noted that governments need to encourage the adoption of these vehicles but infrastructure is needed to support electric vehicles.
One other major takeaway may be history repeating itself, as an Asian nation showed up ready to take America by storm. Chinese based GAC Motors announced on Monday, Jan.15, that it will sell cars in the American market by the fourth quarter of 2018, following the establishment of a joint venture in China with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Issues remain for GAC – it would have to establish its own dealership network or work with an existing automaker. However, the company is currently in the process of opening R&D centers in Detroit and Los Angeles following its recent opening of an R&D center in Silicon Valley.
There has been speculation that Fiat Chrysler could be bought by GAC or another Chinese firm, but Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne shot down rumors.
“The answer is no, we’re not going to break up anything,” Marchionne told reporters. “We have no intention of breaking it up and giving it to the Chinese.”
For now Jeep will remain an American brand, and given the demand for SUVs, that could be a safe bet.