Just check Mark Fields’ itinerary for early January for an idea of how the auto industry has changed in a matter of a few years.
Ford’s chief executive made some news at the plant in Flat Rock on Tuesday, flew out to deliver a keynote speech at the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas on Friday — then came back to be on hand for Ford’s press conference at the North American International Auto Show Monday morning.
Yes, Fields’ highest-profile deed was seeming to acquiesce to Donald Trump on Ford’s new plant in Mexico. But maybe more important for the long term was that Fields could tell cheering workers at Flat Rock they would be among the first to build the company’s versions of self-driven, perhaps widely shared, and probably electrically propelled, vehicles of the future.
Because now and for some time to come what the auto industry will boil down to is a struggle for who’s at the wheel.
Will it be the new class of interlopers from Silicon Valley, or even Beijing, who hold the keys to the crucial digital brains of tomorrow’s automobiles? Or will it be the traditional Big Three automakers and their peers in Tokyo, Frankfurt, Paris, Milan and Seoul? They’re now fully engaged in trying to retain mastery of their industry in a new era in which software and emissions controls clearly will be much bigger determinants of carmaking success than horsepower and handling.
The notion of building great, discrete vehicles as a means of personal freedom and convenience is giving way to an emerging vision of the automobile simply as one node of a digitally hyper-connected lifestyle.
Soon, your heart rate will be monitored by a mobile device that is connected to the car’s telematics system that is connected to your smart-home network which also sets the temperature and automatically starts the clothes dryer in your house that is powered by batteries that also can be taken out of the solar charging unit to start the car in the garage. Get it?
And make no mistake: There’s a huge regional play here.
Much of the early talk and tentative moves in automated driving involve cooperation, not competition. But Silicon Valley giants may not be content just to provide the code for vehicles whose guts — the sinews of steel and aluminum and composites and heat-resistant plastics — are still designed and assembled in Midwestern factories that seem like ridiculously remote outposts to the Californians.
And on the other side, the leaders who control the levers of the industry most important to Michigan, and to all of Flyover Country, must claw for every bit of intellectual control of the auto of the future that they can muster for this region.
That’s why, in addition to Fields’ announcement at Flat Rock, it’s encouraging to see NAIAS step up and stage its own mobility-technology gathering, AutoMobili-D, overlapping the traditional show beginning today.
At myriad press conferences, seminars and panel discussions at AutoMobili-D, dozens of leading figures in the emerging mobility paradigm will share what’s happening there with thousands of journalists from around the world.
It’s a welcome sign that Detroit will have a central role in the transformation of mobility.