By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Another Detroit Auto Show has come and gone, and in the aftermath of all of the glad-handing, air selling, mindless platitudes and overrated well, everything, there are two things to conclude. 1. It wasn’t that great of a show, in fact it was a fairly mediocre one. And 2. It’s obvious that the automobile business as we know it is heading for some sort of monumental shift.
Let me talk about the show first. As I tweeted last week, the whole "let's have an auto show here in January" thing has well and truly run its course. That the Detroit Auto Show needs a new idea has long been established, in fact the entire big auto show calendar here in the U.S. needs an overhaul. I could easily see the manufacturers getting together and focus a discussion on just the four major shows: Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and New York and come up with a better flow.
The Detroit Auto Show (NAIAS) occupies its place on the calendar because back in the day it was an idea to bolster sales during the doldrums of January and February. Well, those days are long gone. Today, the Detroit Auto Show's spot on the calendar is a lingering problem. Why? Because inevitably the weather here in January is, shall we say, more than a little unpleasant (I heard more complaints this year than any other year) and it creates a truly inhospitable atmosphere for the show.
And the hoary argument that the U.S. shows are timed for new vehicle introductions? That is another anachronism. Inevitably manufacturers plan their vehicle introductions based on their own product cadences and since the importance of the fall vehicle introductions went by the wayside decades ago, it just doesn’t matter.
Simply put, the Detroit Auto Show doesn’t have to be in January. In fact, there's no real reason why it couldn't be moved to another spot on the auto show calendar. When, then? June would be a perfect time for the show here, weather and otherwise. Think about it. The auto manufacturers devote huge amounts of time, energy and money to introduce vehicles on the show floor here in January, vehicles that are anywhere from six to twelve months out (and sometimes more) from hitting the street. A Detroit Auto Show in June would go a long way to reduce that time gap. Will this idea be considered? As I said in last week’s “On The Table” if there are visionaries involved the idea will have a chance, but I'm sure it's far too daunting to contemplate for the powers that be. In other words, how about no? And that’s too bad.
The rest of the show? Well you can go back and read my take on it in depth here, but it was a fairly “quiet” show, which is what I said in the various interviews I gave last week. In this case “quiet” was a euphemism for uninspired. Sure, people fell all over themselves to canonize the Buick Avista, but that’s because it didn’t really have any competition and also it has become obligatory for the media to slobber all over anything GM Design does, which, given their track record is usually for good reason.
In this case I disagreed and yes, I know this is two years in a row for me (I thought the Avenir was terribly overrated too) but I just couldn’t let the derivative nature of the design exercise called Avista go unchallenged because it looked for all the world like a Tesla coupe. And there’s simply no excuse for it either. Yes, the interior was wonderfully rendered and the shade of blue it was painted in was stunning, but beyond that? Not so much.
I get the fact that the design community mimics and copies each other at will and almost always has, but the point of the Avista was what again? A new design direction for Buick? Oh please, do you mean the Buick that solely exists for the Chinese market, which is why we’re just along for the ride here? The Buick with the amateurish and excruciatingly annoying television commercials, you know, the ones that make you want to throw up every time one pops up on the screen? That Buick?
The GM executive brain trust is lavishing attention on Buick because they honestly believe they can propel the brand to greatness over here. Repeat after me for the thousandth time: It just doesn’t matter anymore. Flog Buick in China, that is – based on GM’s conscious decisions years ago – where it belongs and where it will continue to thrive. Over here? Stop trying to convince us that Buick will be a happening brand with those relentlessly insipid commercials. The people who want Buicks over here will gravitate to them and it will continue to operate in the strata it’s most comfortable in, which is as a Sideshow Bob player in our domestic market. And it’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with that. Half of the battle in this business is knowing and understanding who you are, not who you think you should be. Too bad more car companies can’t grasp that concept.
As for the rest of the show, I encourage you to go back to last week’s issue where we gleefully dispensed our Autoextremist High-Octane Truth Awards, the awards designed to honor those getting it right by weeding out the poseurs, the spineless weasels, the unmitigated bullshit, and calling out the ill-equipped and barely-there hordes who came to play and came up woefully short. It was a nice juxtaposition and a relief from the fawning and slobbering going on down at Cobo Hall.
As for the aforementioned Point 2., it’s clear that this business is rushing headlong into the Abyss of The Unknown. Why? Because two decidedly different perspectives are about to square off and neither one of the factions involved knows where it’s all going. Well, that’s not exactly true. One faction is quite clear about ending the automobile business as we know it; the other is out to control the crash while getting a cut of the action.
It’s the Connected, Autonomous, Ride-Sharing Imperative Zealots vs. The Future of Transportation Realists.
On the one side are the Zealots of the anti-car intelligentsia, which consists of The Masters of All They Survey, aka the feverishly brilliant (just ask ‘em) hordes in Silicon Valley; the California government auto regulators, whose primary mission in life is to tell the rest of the country what’s good for us (even though with each new strident edict we could all care less), and of course the carpetbagging hordes in Washington, those usual stumblebum suspects in the political ranks who continue their self-aggrandizng dance of egregious ineptitude.
The Zealots believe that we will all soon exist in a Shiny Happy World where cars will appear at our beckoning and then disappear to Some Other Place, which presumably will be out of sight and out of mind. Like Iowa. I can just imagine the rationale now: “Oh, I don’t know. Who cares? Ick. We’ll figure that out later!”
The Zealots are all about freedom from the “tyranny” of the automobile, the one (albeit popular) conveyance responsible for all of our problems, both real and imagined. The Zealots aren’t content with just snuffing the life out of the dirty, intransigent automobile business. Oh no, they want to gain control of it first of all because everyone associated with the auto business as we know it is just so relentlessly incompetent. (Didn’t you get that memo? It’s well documented.) Then they not only want to eradicate it from the face of the earth, they want to purge it from our history while they’re at it, dismissing the entire exercise as “The Regrettable Unpleasantness.”
On the other hand The Realists represent the near and future reality of transportation in this vast nation. They represent a business that is part of the industrial fabric of this country, one that propelled the expansion of this great nation and helped create the Arsenal of Democracy when called upon in the time of this country’s most dire need. The Realists build a wide range of vehicles designed to meet the needs of a vastly diverse nation, from urban centers to wide-open spaces, all while meeting a tightening grip of safety, emissions and fuel economy regulations. In other words, the realists know how to make things, a decidedly diminishing skill here, in fact.
To the Zealots, the Realists represent the Old World Order and a dirty, recalcitrant industry that should be put out to pasture in favor of blue-sky thinking and a wonderfully benign solution for our future transportation needs. In the Zealots’ minds they represent the New World Order, what The Unfortunates in the industry formerly known as the automobile industry will be transitioned to and be a part of (albeit briefly) before they’re eventually and mercifully put to sleep. Heard of Soylent Green? This will be known as the Soylent Grind.
As you can imagine, this is not sitting well with the Realists and the people directly and indirectly connected to the automobile industry. So, rather than dismiss the Zealots, the Realists, armed with the knowledge that they know more about the mass producing of transportation than anyone in the world and have tremendously capable technical resources of their own, are making deals and arrangements with the Zealots at a furious pace.
Why? Because the Realists want to be up front in the engine compartment before the autonomous train leaves the station. They aim to be part of the solution because in order to get this autonomous car movement off of the ground, which will facilitate the ride sharing that will come with it, there has to be a realistic and concrete plan to execute the visions and the notions of the Zealots and translate it into vehicles that can be mass produced at a cost-effective rate and actually retain a shred of desirability while doing so.
Are there problems associated with all of this? More than you can count.
For one giant thing, rather than being optimal for the entire transportation fleet, the Zealots’ plan realistically only has a chance of working largely in the major urban centers. Where does that leave the rest of the country? Exactly. That means that the Realists will have to dance with one foot in Zealotland and with the other firmly planted in the sustainable and profitable side of the business that will serve and benefit most of the rest of the country. The auto industry has to figure out how to save the Zealots from themselves while continuing to build precision products and marketing desirable brands for the rest of us.
It’s the Grand Dichotomy when it comes right down to it and it's coming to a political arena near you.
As Rosanne Rosannadanna used to famously say, It’s always somethin’.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Check out the latest episode of The High-Octane Truth on AutoextremistTV below. -WG