Howes: New era for Detroit autos requires innovation

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

In normal times, Detroit’s record sales and earnings would define success, boost profit-sharing payouts, fatten executive bonuses and signal more good times ahead — including this year.

These are not normal times. This town and the folks who depend on the health of its bellwether industry need to understand that as clearly as the executives and directors running the automakers and placing big bets on the future.

I’m not sure they do. In the auto industry of the next decade, success will be measured as much by innovation and calculated risk-taking as it will the basic business of designing, building and selling cars and trucks. Doesn’t matter how much the traditional metal still accounts for the vast percentage of sales and profits.

What matters — not that you could tell it listening to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — is unambiguous recognition your father’s auto industry is gone and it’s not coming back. Rewriting trade deals and slapping tariffs on Mexican-made vehicles won’t alter the arc of technology, sustainably inflate consumer demand or ease the discipline exacted by capital markets.

What matters is the future, not so much the present. It’s about whether GM and Ford, to name two, can disrupt the transportation sector or once again be disrupted by competitors. It’s about whether companies that hundreds of thousands depend on for retirement income, and millions depend on for economic activity, will be going concerns a decade or more from now.

It’s about managing, not denying, the realities of government regulation. It’s about recognizing the long-term health of the industry and its ability to attract investment also depends on answering emerging trends, anticipating demographic shifts, harnessing technology threatening to reduce demand for cars and trucks, and — gasp! — serving foreign markets.

Those are each where real growth is. Without growth and innovation, the auto industry of Detroit’s popular conjuring — management and labor, muscle cars and pickups, buying and leasing — no longer makes a compelling case for investors to finance.

The hot capital markets are saying exactly that, even if the market for today’s metal mostly isn’t. Ford Motor Co. says this week that it will double its presence in Silicon Valley, that it plans to leapfrog semi-autonomous vehicles and jump right into fully self-driving trucks by 2021. Wall Street yawns.

General Motors Co. launches an affordable electric car, the Chevrolet Bolt, that proposes to beat Tesla Motors Inc.’s Elon Musk at this own game, and investors shrug. A play for Cruise Automation, an investment in the ride-sharing Lyft Inc., and the founding of GM’s Maven car-sharing brand are all markers, to whoever pays attention, of the automaker acting decidedly different than its lumbering predecessor.

Sergio Marchionne’s Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV inks a deal with Google Inc. to test its self-driving technology and The Street wonders whether that’s all there is — all of them unambiguous signs that the Detroit industry’s post-bankruptcy rehabilitation will take years of under-promising and over-delivering.

Profitability in the New Detroit is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. The town whose entrepreneurial innovations a century or so ago helped put America on wheels faces an inflection point that cannot be answered by presidential pandering certain to disappear after Election Day.

Yes, this is shaping up to be another record year, or close to it, for the traditional side of the business in what “normal times” would consider a good year. More significantly: this is likely to be seen as the year Detroit declared it will not cede the emerging “mobility” game to Silicon Valley.

It shouldn’t. The tech moguls given to mouthing sanctimonious social-justice pieties are nonetheless cutthroat capitalists. They’re targeting Detroit’s backyard because they know a trifecta when they see one: profit, growth and opportunity in an industry known for being slow, indecisive and risk-averse.

Not anymore, if the past eight months are any guide. Never in the past 20 years have I seen the Detroit-based industry so effectively operate its core business even as it invests in emerging technologies that are more than a sop to toughening federal fuel economy rules.

Whether and how quickly big numbers of consumers vindicate Detroit’s bets in mobility remains to be seen. It’s not an either/or proposition anymore. It’s both — and a Detroit that missed the opportunity would deserve all the opprobrium it would get.

(313) 222-2106

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