Sci-fi dreams become reality at Detroit auto show

Advances in self-driving and safety features will be on display as more than 40 vehicles make their debuts

Paul Eisenstein
Special to The Detroit News

What a year it was … and what a year it is likely to be.

A teaser photo of the 2018 Lexus LS, making its debut in Detroit, hints of semi-autonomous safety technology.

As the 2017 North American International Auto Show gets ready to roll into the Motor City for its annual run, the auto industry is at what Waymo CEO John Krafcik likes to call “an inflection point.” Mary Barra, General Motors’ chairman and chief executive, puts it another way: “The auto industry is likely to change more in the next five years than it has in the last 50.”

Skeptical? Just spend a day at Cobo Center, where more than 40 cars, trucks and crossovers will make their North American or global debut — with scores of other recently launched models on display. With many of those new models, what seemed like science fiction just a few years ago is about to become reality.

Krafcik, the head of the recently renamed Google autonomous vehicle unit, will preside over one of the first big events during the three-day NAIAS media preview. He’ll pull the wraps off a specially modified version of the new Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid capable of running autonomously. Self-driving cars were one of the biggest stories of 2016 and you can expect them to continue grabbing headlines in the new year, as automakers come ever closer to putting them into production.

Indeed, more and more of the new production models on display at Cobo Center will be featuring the latest in semi-autonomous technologies capable of watching your blind spot, minding oncoming traffic as you back out of a mall parking lot and even slamming on the brakes automatically if you don’t respond quickly enough to a potential collision.

While highway fatality rates have taken an unfortunate turn for the worse over the last several years, experts believe these high-tech safety systems could lead us to an era of zero traffic deaths in the not-too-distant future.

It wasn’t all that long ago when auto shows were filled with fantasies in chrome that seemed unlikely to ever come to reality, but autonomous vehicles are just one way in which science fiction is becoming an everyday reality.

One of the stars of the 2016 Detroit show was the Chevrolet Bolt EV. It’s back this year, but in production form — and with a price tag of less than $30,000 after applying federal tax credits. It even outdoes its original billing, getting an EPA-rated 238 miles per charge.

The Bolt won’t hog the spotlight for long, however. Virtually every major automaker now has announced plans for long-range, mainstream-priced battery-electric vehicles. And we’ll see a few of them at Cobo, including a concept electric minivan from Volkswagen and a new battery model from Fiat Chrysler.

We’ll also see an assortment of conventional hybrids and plug-in hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius Prime and the new BMW 740e, as well as three super-clean hydrogen cars from Toyota, Honda and Hyundai.

Prefer something a little more traditional? No worries. Toyota’s promising some big surprises with the launch of the eighth-generation Camry, America’s best-selling passenger car.

“We’ve been criticized for being conservative in our styling. Some of you call it boring,” says Bob Carter, head of the Japanese maker’s U.S. auto operations. “Now we’re focusing on building a more fun-drive, stylish vehicle.”

For performance fans, Mercedes-Benz will roll out not only the new E-Class Coupe but a trio of AMG GT sports car variants which you might call fast, faster and whoa! You don’t need deep pockets to love performance, however. Kia plans to unveil the new Stinger sports car at this year’s NAIAS, the production version of a wildly popular 2011 concept car.

Yet, while there will be some significant new sedan, coupe and sports car introductions at this year’s show, a closer look reveals that sport and crossover utility vehicles will dominate the media preview and the show floor during public days. That’s no surprise, when you consider that light trucks, in general, now account for nearly two-thirds of all new vehicles being sold in the United States.

Among the many “utes” on display, look for a newer, larger Chevrolet Traverse, a downsized GMC Terrain, an all-new subcompact crossover from Nissan based on its popular European model, the Qashqai, and a variety of concepts likely to soon reach production, including the BMW Concept X2, the Infiniti QX50 and the Audi Q8.

And for those who think minivans are dead, think again. Chrysler will be back with the plug-in version of its popular Pacifica, while Honda will unveil an all-new version of the country’s best-selling people-mover, the Odyssey.

For those who don’t have a press pass, the annual Industry Preview will be held on Wednesday, Jan. 11, from noon to 9 p.m. and on Jan. 12, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets cost $110.

The show’s Charity Preview is scheduled for Jan. 13, from 6-9 p.m. Tickets for the black-tie gala go for $400, of which $390 is tax deductible. And if that write-off isn’t enough to get you to write a check, how about a special performance by the Beach Boys, who will be helping warm up a cold Detroit night.

The 2017 North American International Auto Show opens to the general public on Saturday, Jan. 14, and runs until Sunday, Jan. 22. Hours are 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., except that last day, when things are locked down and the packing-up begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $13 for adults, $7 for seniors and children 7-12 years old. Those 6 and under enter for free with a parent or guardian.

For information, call the auto show ticket office at (248) 283-5173.