Auto industry's past and future collide in Detroit

Mon Jan 12, 2015 4:52pm EST
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By Paul Ingrassia

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.   Continued...

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