Judging by the stock-market hysteria surrounding Tesla Inc.’s bid to become America’s most valued automaker, you’d think electric cars are the only thing going.
Major automakers know better. They’ve transformed this week’s New York Auto Show into a shameless celebration of size and horsepower, more proof that the emissions-free vision touted by the industry for now is trumped by the current market realities of consumer demand, low interest rates and cheap gas.
Imagine that. Automakers are in business to make money, and right now the biggest bucks are in pickups, SUVs and muscle cars — not electrified compacts. All that horsepower is more evocative of Detroit’s past than its inevitable self-driving future, of course, steel and rubber confirmation that the industry cannot afford to ignore the present.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, a laggard in the autonomous-vehicle race, is over-compensating this week in New York with a show of raw power. Enter the 707-horsepower Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk and the 840-horsepower Dodge Challenger SRT Demon, answers to questions almost no one is asking.
Ford Motor Co., considered a leader in the evolving mobility space, is proving once again that it comes by its reputation honestly as a trucks-first company. The Blue Oval this week is touting an updated Ford Explorer and a longer, if lighter, Lincoln Navigator SUV, hardly exemplars of the clean, electrified future.
General Motors Co. is showing a new version of its Buick Enclave SUV, a few months after it used the hometown Detroit auto show to tout its Chevrolet sibling, the Traverse. The electric Chevrolet Bolt, GM’s pre-emptive answer to Tesla Chairman Elon Musk’s Model 3, gets its due — but the real mojo is pushing big metal.
Even Subaru, the crunchy brand from Japan’s Subaru Corp., is bulking up. The automaker is using New York to showcase its Ascent full-size SUV, a near-production concept vehicle that will feature three rows of seating for seven passengers when it rolls off its Indiana assembly line next year.
None of this, and more, is hewing to the politically correct script charting the industry’s future: how hybrids and full-electric vehicles will replace internal combustion engines sooner than most folks think; how fuel prices will continue to rise; how consumers will clamor for self-driving vehicles powered by batteries.
Some are, to be sure. And the crowded electrified segment promises to grow more crowded still over the next few years as new entrants from most of the major players join the party. But this week’s New York display suggests the revolution has longer to wait — in the United States, especially.
A study on “automotive disruption” to be released later this month by Roland Berger GmbH, a global auto industry consultancy headquartered in Germany, says would-be customers are showing increasing interest in self-driving vehicles and mobility services.
Consumers in Asia, a mega-market growing faster than the mature U.S. market, are leaders in the use of mobility concepts. And Asian drivers are showing more interest in electric vehicles, notwithstanding the lack of a necessary charging infrastructure.
“Roughly half of all customers” surveyed by Roland Berger “are interested in mobility concepts and autonomous vehicles, the core criteria for industry disruption,” the study says. “Emerging Asian countries and China show highest interest for mobility concepts, while mature Western markets are less interested.”
Trailing major countries surveyed is the United States. It’s a “leader” in developing 5G-network capability, vehicle-to-vehicle communication and autonomous test sites. But it’s a “follower” in customer interest and the kind of rules that restrict the use of internal combustion engines and drive (or force) consumers to adopt battery electric vehicles.
That’s not likely to change in the Era of Trump. The new president is signaling repeatedly his eagerness to support the traditional auto industry of jobs, plants and gas-powered products in exchange for data-driven assessments of federal fuel-economy rules, among other things.
Using tax policy or government rules to discourage or restrict the use of gas-powered engines is not likely to come from the current administration’s Transportation Department or Environmental Protection Agency — even as such ideas flourish under California-driven rules followed by roughly a dozen states.
This week’s New York show is another reminder that the auto industry split personality will remain a fact of life. Even as U.S. consumers demand more pickups and, especially, SUVs of all shapes and sizes, influential (and growing) markets in Asia and Europe will continue to drive part of the industry into electrics and, ultimately, self-driving vehicles.
Rides like that may not quicken the pulse of your average middle American gearhead. But in the congested mega-cities of China and India (huge potential markets for automakers craving growth), a Dodge Challenger SRT Demon may not be the answer.
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.