Los Angeles – The 21st-century U.S. auto industry is performing a skilled juggling act, and that performance is on stage this week at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
Automakers are serving multiple masters. They are investing billions in self-driving technologies that many predict are the future of ride-sharing services and daily commutes. Yet, they must also maintain full-line product portfolios for driving customers on course to buy 17 million new vehicles for the third year in a row. The vast majority of those vehicles will be powered by cheap gas, yet carmakers must also meet the demands of governments like California that are forcing carmakers into a regulated future of battery-powered vehicles.
This week, automakers will serve the future. Things get started Tuesday at the Los Angeles Convention Center with the AutoMobility LA conference that brings together automakers, designers, computer engineers, academics, investors and others to share their visions of an autonomous future.
Executives from Panasonic, BMW and Waymo will speak on topics like “Redefining Mobility in a Connected World” and “Roadside Ransomware: Fact or Fiction?”
Their visions are hardly hypothetical. Automakers are already building self-driving chariots. Uber has announced a partnership with Volvo to put 24,000 Uber-bots on the road starting in 2019. The agreement puts the company on a “path toward mass-produced self-driving vehicles at scale,” says Jeff Miller, Uber’s chief of auto alliances. Google-owned Waymo and Lyft have also entered into partnerships with Chrysler (the Pacifica minivan) and Chevrolet (Bolt EV).
On the convention center’s floor, automakers will roll out their visions for an electric-car future beginning Wednesday. Using California’s clout as the largest auto market in the U.S., regulators here have set hard EV sales quotas — and state politicians are soon expected to follow the lead of European governments including France and Britain to eliminate the gas engine within the next two decades.
Luxury automakers like BMW and Mercedes will display new, EV-focused product lines here — the i-line and EQ-line, respectively — as they try meeting government requirements and compete with California electric start-up Tesla. Even retro-brand Mini Cooper will debut an EV concept.
Yet, Tesla’s inability to make a profit despite an average transaction price of $100,000 on its Model S and Model X electrics speaks to the difficulty of the industry’s challenge.
In California, rich with EV incentives and a battery-friendly weather, hybrid-electric/plug-in electric/pure electric vehicles make up just 9 percent of the market. Automakers aren’t ignoring the other 91 percent of customers and the profit-generating vehicles they covet.
Beginning Friday, the doors will open to the automakers’ consumer masters and they will have plenty of good ol’, driver-focused, gas-guzzling toys to ogle.
Detroit automakers will roll out new versions of some of the most iconic vehicles ever made: the 755-horsepower ZR1 and off-road star Jeep Wrangler. Lincoln will showcase its Navigator land yacht on the LA stage for the first time.
And automakers will slake the appetite of ute-hungry America. The hulking, three-row BMW X7 concept and Subaru Ascent will be the largest vehicles their respective brands have ever introduced. Volvo, Hyundai, Land Rover and Lexus will unveil all-new SUVs. Even struggling Mitsubishi will try to resurrect itself in the US market with a new ute.
Sitting in the middle of this busy crossroads of technology, SUVs, and government mandates will be the Jaguar I-PACE eTrophy Prototype.
The Jag’s mission is as complex as its name. An electric SUV aimed squarely at the Tesla Model X, the I-PACE hopes to capitalize on both the demand for utes and premium EVs. Its eTrophy prototype sprouts a rear-mounted wing and announces an international, battery-powered SUV racing series with the hopes of electrifying the public to the idea of an EV future. Who knows, maybe it will be self-driving.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.