By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. That we’re living in strange automotive times is an understatement. On the one hand, we’re experiencing the finest performance and luxury cars ever built, and the best cars and trucks overall ever to emerge in the industry’s history.
It seems that each week comes news of another achievement in motoring on the way. Whether it is a newer, harder-edged version of the Ford GT; the Camaro ZL1 1LE (see “On The Table” –WG); yet another new McLaren; the almost 800HP Ferrari 812 Superfast; or the new Bentley Continental Supersports, a 5,000-lb. supercar that has 700HP, goes 0-60 mph in 3.4 seconds and has a top speed of 209 mph. And there are many more on the way.
These cars bristle with technological achievement and offer a level of performance that simply defies gravity, seemingly able to shrink space and time. The industry has never seen anything like this before. Certainly not at the level of high performance we’re experiencing now. It would be quaint to say that we’re living in a “golden era” of performance, but we blew past “golden” a long time ago. This industry is operating on the edge of the unknown, with talk of 1000HP machines on the horizon.
On the other hand, this industry is operating on the edge of the unknown in another arena as well. The headlong rush to autonomous vehicle development, electrification (and hydrogen-electric power), car sharing and everything else that’s being bandied about has industry players operating in three completely different dimensions.
It’s easy to see why too. We’re going to have cars and trucks as we know them for at least another 30 years, and this industry must continue to design, develop and engineer vehicles that will be driven by regular humans for quite some time to come. But the auto industry is being forced to hedge its bets as well. Having been in the transportation business for more than 100 years, this industry isn’t about to cede its territory to the Silicon Valley hordes just “because.”
The car companies have vast experience in the mass production of complex machines, and the development of autonomous vehicles in all of their permutations is something the auto industry is relishing taking the lead on. And it’s no secret that the big-ticket Silicon Valley players have already come to the realization that “Detroit” collectively has superior knowledge when it comes to making things, and that it is one of this country’s centers of technological thinking and manufacturing expertise.
But this has ushered in the dawn of an odd new era. Industry players are being forced to do a three-step dance unlike anything required before. How so? This business has always been a little crazy, what with designers and engineers frenetically working on current and upcoming production cars while fleshing out production concepts due five years down the road. That is the two-step that has been a known quantity in this business almost since this industry began. But throw the exploding frontier of autonomy and electrification into the mix, and now you have a three-step dance that makes for some interesting days to be sure.
Example? It’s not uncommon for a Big Kahuna chief engineer to attend a meeting locking in production intent for a car or truck five years out in the morning, followed by a session update/review of the latest developments on the company’s autonomous vehicle front, and then ending the day at the proving ground ripping around in the company’s latest high-performance machines. As in, how do you want your maelstrom swirled today, Mr. Big Shot?
Can the industry sustain this dance? It has no choice. The automobile companies can’t just be part of the solution going forward, they must lead the discussion and determine the direction, because after being engaged in the transportation business for over a century, squandering that legacy isn’t optional. Besides, they have incredible operating margins dancing in their heads from these autonomous pod cars, and some believe we’re on the precipice of New Profitability the likes of which this industry has never seen.
I am not buying into that, at least not yet. The theories all seem fanciful and wildly blue sky at this point, and the fact remains that no one really knows how it’s going to play out, despite all of the wildly aggressive projections from the hordes of card-carrying MBAs stumbling around this town.
For the record, I can safely say that no songs will be written about autonomous pod cars, no matter how much they try to dress them up and tell us how wonderful things will be because of them. There’s no question the dawn of autonomy – though providing a measure of freedom in certain circumstances – will be the end of the automotive era as we know it. And if that Dystopian future can be held at bay for another 30 or so years, I’ll take it.
If this industry wants to continue to be part of the transportation equation, then yes, there’s a great deal of hedging bets and covering bases going on, because that’s just the way the game has to be played at this moment in time.
So for the foreseeable future we’ll be seeing a glittering array of supercars and 1000HP hyper-performance cars; luxury trucks, SUVs and crossovers; as well as a whole squadron of alternative vehicles powered by whimsy and a smile.
It's the new reality.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.