Here’s a little secret for the thousands descending this weekend on the North American International Auto Show: these confabs as we’ve know them are in danger of becoming obsolete.

The global auto industry commands nearly $3 trillion in annual revenue worldwide. It remains a cornerstone of mature economies. And its establishment in developing countries is a marker of national comings of age.

But the intense focus here is less on the metal and horsepower sitting on the show floor, the cars and trucks that produce all the revenue and profits driving the industry today and well into tomorrow. It’s on “mobility,” the services, self-driving vehicles and technology enabling what Ford Motor Co. says could be a $10 trillion transportation services business globally.

Numbers like that should focus even the most cynical automotive mind. These are the people accustomed to seeing the business through the lens of the next few model years, quarterly financial results, nagging doubts and grudging acceptance that, yes, some foreign-made cars are a fact of life.

The industry is changing, fast and undeniably, so fast it threatens to leave some behind. Hardcore auto engineers and their executive leadership this week will share time at the show with no-name startups pitching for venture capital, a “Cities of Tomorrow” conference exploring urban mobility problems, and Disney’s Pixar unveiling a character in its “Cars 3” movie.

In Detroit? Yes, in Detroit. Press days will be followed Wednesday and Thursday by some 110 speakers available to an expected 45,000 industry executives from 26 countries. Altogether it’s some 40 hours on mobility-related topics ranging from regulation and urban transportation to venture capital, cyber-security and autonomy as a way to help people with disabilities.

It’s unprecedented for a Detroit auto show, recognition that the distinction between transportation and technology is disappearing; that there’s money and growth to be gained in the new mobility space encompassing everything from pickups to self-driving cars; that Detroit is determined to take competition and change seriously — and to win.

Credit the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, organizers of the annual show, for trying to harness the fast-moving mobility space and yoke it to a show whose roots are sunk deep in the notion of touting showroom-ready vehicles to buying customers.

“It’s just an evolution of the auto industry itself,” says Rod Alberts, executive director of the DADA. “We’re just looking to the future of where the auto industry is headed. Mobility is a part of it. It’s not going to be separate pieces in the future. It will all blend together.”

Could their innovation — as much Detroit’s unambiguous answer to industry trends as the CES electronics expo last week in Las Vegas — risk diluting the show’s reason for being? It’ll be a question worth asking when another year’s extravaganza passes, visitors take stock and automakers do likewise.

“You can’t out-CES CES, and you shouldn’t try,” says a ranking Detroit auto executive familiar with auto show planning. “For the foreseeable future, cars, trucks and crossovers sold to consumers will be a big deal. It’s kind of chasing a shiny penny.”

Maybe. But if you catch it before the other guy, and demonstrate your unique ability to engineer the combination of technology with manufacturing and customer experience, it’s probably a risk work taking.

Not since the Golden Age of Detroit, when Mustangs and Corvettes captivated California and the Motown sound reigned supreme, have Hollywood, Silicon Valley and the Motor City been so sympatico. The connections are technology, the race for competitive advantage and the bid for millennial attention in the second century of personal transportation.

As if to prove the point, show organizers say the hottest session at the opening of the AutoMobili-D expo Sunday at Cobo Center is John Krafcik, CEO of Google Inc.’s Waymo autonomous car project — so hot that representatives for auto CEOs are inquiring about reserved seating for their kind.

That’s hot. It also reveals an internal tension stretching the industry. The contradiction pits the profit-making present of traditional cars and trucks against an emerging space that is expected to be electrified, high-tech and eventually autonomous.

The result is a new definition of the auto industry to be arrayed at Cobo Center. Beyond General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, foreign-owned competitors and the supply base they all share is a whole new contingent of tech companies whose names range from Google and Apple to start-ups no one knows. Yet.

The ties that bind them all together are technology and changing societal trends: millennials who want to be driven instead of drive; consumers who want to buy a ride, not own a car; cities whose leaders see electrified self-driving vehicles as credible answers to pollution and congestion.

For more than 100 years, Detroit’s been in that kind of business, for better or worse. This coming week’s show is a statement that it intends to keep playing.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.

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