January 12, 2015 / 1:20 PM / 6 years ago

Auto industry's past and future collide in Detroit

DETROIT (Reuters) - For Detroit’s first auto show of the 21st Century in January 2000, General Motors announced “the largest auto show exhibit ever in North America” to usher in the new Millennium.

Company publicists declared that if the exhibit’s 230 tons of steel were melted into beams and laid end-to-end they would stretch seven miles, equivalent to crossing the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Canada four times each way, or running the length of a soccer field 105 times. GM’s press release added that the steel would rise three times higher than Mt. Fuji, a not-so-subtle swipe at the company’s automotive rivals from Japan.

That exuberance provided a sharp contrast to the Detroit show a decade later in January 2009. Record profits had turned to record losses. GM’s exhibit was a few vehicles parked on a dirty carpet. Company executives staged a pep rally at which hundreds of employees chanted, “Here to Stay, Here to Stay.” GM declared bankruptcy just six months later.

This year marks this correspondent’s 30th straight Detroit car show, or the North American International Auto Show as it is officially called. While the 2000 and 2009 shows were especially memorable, each had its special flavor reflecting the prosperity, austerity, upheaval, or (more recently) transformation of an industry that helps shape the economies and define the cultures of nations.  

This year will be no exception. The global auto industry is undergoing three simultaneous technological transformations: the propulsion revolution, the connectivity revolution and the autonomy revolution.

The first will determine whether the internal combustion engine will be supplanted by hybrid cars, battery-powered electric cars or hydrogen fuel cells. This effort will continue, the recent plunge in global oil prices notwithstanding, because governments seem to love alternative fuel vehicles, even if most consumers do not.

The connectivity revolution is putting Internet services, from satellite navigation systems to advanced telecommunications, into vehicle dashboards.  

The autonomy revolution, in plain English, is the driverless car. It is already creeping into vehicles in the form of radar that can sense a potential collision and automatically apply the brakes.

Ultimately, autonomous cars might obliviate individual ownership as cars ferry passengers to their desired destinations before heading off to pick up their next customer. Driverless cars could be a linchpin of a future “sharing economy.”  

General Motors Corp. President of North America Mark Reuss introduces the Chevrolet 2014 Corvette vehicle during a press event in an old industrial center in advance of press preview days of the North American International Auto show in Detroit, Michigan in this file image from January 13, 2013. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/Files

At this year’s show all three trends will be evident, but not dominant. Google’s driverless guru, Chris Urmson, will attend the show, but without one of the company’s prototype cars.

For every electric-powered Tesla there will be lots of gas-gulping pickup trucks and SUVs, the vehicles that for all the impending technology upheavals still fuel Detroit’s profits.

The future’s uneasy coexistence with the present has been a recurrent theme during my annual pilgrimage to the Motor City. This juxtaposition was starkly evident, for example, at the show’s centennial year in 2007, when GM drew rave reviews for its prototype “plug-in” hybrid car, the Chevrolet Volt.

Sitting a few feet away, however, was Chevy’s 638-horsepower Corvette ZR1. Gas mileage: do not ask.

Last year the Corvette (all models, not just the ZR1) outsold the Volt by almost two-to-one, as the Volt continued to short-circuit, metaphorically, in showrooms. GM is introducing a new version of the Volt this year.

One of my vivid auto show memories occurred when I was leading a group of Cub scouts, including two of my sons, through the show on the night of Jan. 17, 1991. It was the night the first U.S. war in Iraq started.  

We rushed to the press room to see the bombing on big-screen television. “Let’s go home now, boys,” I said after a while. “Tonight isn’t a good night to look at cars.” Today, nearly a quarter-century later, Iraq’s agony is far worse.  

The next year, Chrysler executive Bob Lutz drove the new Jeep Grand Cherokee up the steps of the Cobo Hall exhibition center and deliberately crashed through a plate glass window in a grand publicity stunt for the company’s latest new model. (The window had been rigged with tiny explosive devices to ease the vehicle’s path of entry.)

In 2008 another Chrysler stunt turned to PR disaster. The company staged a cattle drive of 130 Texas longhorn steers through downtown Detroit to tout its new pickup truck. But with kids watching and TV cameras whirring, some nervous animals started mounting each other, prompting snickers about horny longhorns.

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One highlight of the 1986 show, my first, was the debut of the Ford Taurus, with revolutionary curvaceous styling. Buick introduced touch-screen dashboard controls, in now-anachronistic green-on-black. The Chevy Corvette had 230 horsepower, less than today’s six-cylinder Honda Accord.  

The Detroit show is held in January to be first among each year’s major car shows. The archetypical weather is sideways sleet and slush up to your shins. Watching executives’ wives traverse the mess in expensive gowns at the show’s annual black-tie charity preview - known locally as Detroit’s version of the Oscars, where “the cars are the stars” - is always a spectacle.

Last year, for the first time, one of the gowns belonged to a CEO, GM’s Mary Barra, the first woman to lead a major car company. That might be more revolutionary than anything else I have seen over the past 30 years.

Editing by Grant McCool

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