NAIAS 2016: Detroit auto show, where big chrome and Silicon Valley almost meet
As Detroit auto show roars to life, where are Silicon Valley's big self-driving projects?
Volvo calls it "relaxation mode," Erik Coelingh explained. He thumbed over a switch as a cockpit-style white leather seat slid back, reclining nearly flat, while the steering column tucked itself in, out of the way.
It is hard to imagine anything more passive in a driving experience. But passivity is the point.
Coelingh was demonstrating the luxury interior for the C26 self-driving concept car here at the 2016 North American International Auto Show, better known as the Detroit auto show.
"We believe that when you're stuck in traffic or stuck in a commute, it would be nice to press a button and have the car drive autonomously," he said. "Once that is possible, you may want to spend your time maybe eating, reading, or just watching a film."
The technical specialist for autonomous driving with Volvo was showing off yet another fantasy machine in what industry analysts say is the most exciting progression in the modern car — driver freedom.
He barely gave himself time to finish his demo when pearls of light illuminated the carmaker's main stage. The music began, filling the hall.
"There will be a lot of noise soon," Coelingh said, cutting the C26 demo short as Volvo's big show began.
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Indeed, there were more presentations throughout the first press preview day in Detroit — from automotive mainstays like Chrysler, Chevrolet, Audi and Porsche, all of them straining to make themselves heard following a banner year that saw a record 17.5 million sales in the U.S.
And yet, for all the horsepower and bombastic preamble inside the Cobo Centre, perhaps the biggest noise from this 2016 show comes from who wasn't in the room.
The absence of what's often called non-traditional automotive manufacturers — including tech names like Tesla, Google and Apple — was conspicuous, given the high-profile developments in self-driving vehicles, and the big reveals last week at the CES technology show in Las Vegas.
"It's a good question. Where are all the tech companies here at the auto show?" asked John Pozadzides, host of the tech news show GeekBeat.
Cross the street
Part of the answer could be found in a hotel ballroom across the street from the Detroit exhibition space.
There, the CEO of Google's self-driving car project, John Krafcik, is to give a keynote speech today to open the 2016 Automotive News World Congress, a separate event.
The symbolism is hard to ignore.
Krafcik, who stepped down as an executive with Hyundai after 25 years in the automotive industry, has now crossed over to the other side, taking up a role in Silicon Valley.
His new job with Google Inc. puts him in charge of one of the tech industry's most exciting autonomous vehicle experiments.
But if autonomous technology, as the auto industry calls it, is the most exciting development in the business, the 2016 International CES in Las Vegas last week may have let the air out of Detroit's tires.
"There's a redirection of interest or potential, definitely," says Karl Brauer, senior director of insights with Kelley Blue Book.
You go to Motown to see the chrome and to feel "the new metal," as Brauer puts it.
"In terms of the new technology, honestly, you're likely to see or hear about it a week earlier at CES."
A futurist's wish list
Last year, Kia debuted its self-driving car program at CES, while Audi had its self-driving A7 car pull up at the exhibit. Mercedes-Benz also teased its autonomous driving concept F 015 at CES 2015.
Industry analysts equate CES with futurist wish lists and the Detroit auto show with reality.
But that is not to say Motor City is losing its claim to Silicon Valley when it comes to next-generation cars.
"I don't think Detroit matters any less," said Chris Goczan, national product manager for Mercedes Canada.
"It's still a cornerstone of the North American auto circuit market. The technology component lends itself to CES…and the other thing is you have a lot of auto shows in the U.S. now that have become very big events unto themselves. Chicago, New York, L.A. have really stepped up their game."
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This year, Volvo chose Detroit as the site for the North American debut of its handsome S90, the first car to be sold in the U.S. with standard semi-autonomous tech.
Mercedes-Benz also unveiled its E-Class model for the first time in Detroit, at the same time touting its Intelligent Drive system for "accident-free driving."
"The stereo-camera array in the car can latch on to the car in front, rendering it in three dimensions in real time, and watches the lane markings," Goczan said. "The radar sensors can maintain a safe distance from the car in front."
As anticipated as the E-Class reveal was, however, it wasn't the first time auto enthusiasts were given a glimpse inside, or even a hands-on preview. For that, you could have gone to CES last year, where the interior debuted.
"We use the opportunity in Detroit to showcase the whole vehicle, the design aspect of it, kind of the rubber hitting the road," Goczan said.
Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor of Cars.com, noted that the automakers and California tech giants have never been in greater communication with one another than now.
Ford has a Silicon Valley research lab run by former Apple executive Dragos Maciuca; Honda and GM are in the Valley as well.
Rumours swirled last week that Ford would announce an imminent partnership with Google for robo-car technology. But that announcement never came.
Pairing up Motor City with Silicon Valley can be an unwieldy partnership, though, Wiesenfelder says, mostly because of differences in corporate culture and frame of mind.
"People who work in tech developing apps are thinking get it out, get it out, get it out," he said. "Automakers are taking a long time to figure out what they want to do. You wouldn't want to go too fast because it's risky."
The lifecycle of a new car might be 10 years, and there are no quick beta updates. That said, Wiesenfelder believes it's clear traditional automakers do need to speed up the way they work to catch up with the latest technological advances.