Finley: Another Two Detroits tale

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

It’s tougher today to think about the automobile industry in a singular sense.

Is car making still about putting together iron, rubber, glass and sheet metal to produce a rolling work of art that fuels both the imagination and the national economy?

Or is it about utilitarian boxes that plug into the wall and come when you summon them, take you where you want to go, then go away leaving the passengers indifferent to fit, finish and performance?

Both versions are on display this week at the North American International Auto Show in Cobo Center. And I’m finding it hard to reconcile them.

My growing-up years caught the last phase of the automobile’s golden age. Cars still had tail fins, and chrome grilles, and expansive interiors. What a man drove said a lot about who he was, his politics, attitudes and pocketbook.

There’s still some of that today, but not as much. The SUVs that dominate the Cobo floor vary in their degree of luxury, but share a sameness in on-road presence. The hot-shot young financier could easily be driving the same model Jeep as the old guy on the assembly line who built them.

Still, the North American International Auto Show is at its core a consumer show, put on by the auto dealers and not the automakers. So it’s designed to tempt and tease and coax attendees into trading in the salt-covered relics they drove downtown for something bright and unscratched. And loaded up with all sorts of electronic gadgetry that may cause you to sit in the garage and forget to drive it out.

The techno toys are what unite auto shows past and present with auto show future. But the transition is not clearly mapped.

Last week at the Consumer Electronic Show, the auto industry occupied 300,000 square feet of a business-to-business convention that used to thrive on cellphones, robots and sex toys.

Dozens of product reveals were held in Vegas, but none of that product was of the conventional sort you’ll see in Detroit this week. It was all about the Cloud, and connectivity, and ticking off the technology steps to get to the point where the word “motorist” refers to a wizard in the sky, not the person behind the wheel.

More than 150 displays populate the NAIAS AutoMobili-D expo dedicated to the future of autonomous vehicles. The industry’s vision is clearly focused on a point well beyond moving hot cars out of showrooms.

That’s where my personal connectivity issues come in to play.

If I’m not actually driving the car, will I care about horsepower and handling? If the vehicle I own a time-share in isn’t sitting in my driveway, do I care whether its design gives me goose bumps when I look out the window? If it’s electric, as it’s bound to be, will I even care about what’s under the hood?

And if all that doesn’t matter anymore, what happens to the heart of the industry that is under Cobo’s hot lights for the next two weeks?

The self-driving car future is something I can’t quite imagine, so it’s hard for it to stir my imagination.

And imagination has always been what the auto show has meant to me — mentally placing myself behind the wheel of those growling beauties on the display floor.

If there’s no wheel, and no growl, and no primal stirring, the Detroit auto show in 20 years may as well be a giant basement with a bunch of nerds playing video games.

Catch “The Nolan Finley Show” weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.