The Near Future of the American Car Market

From time to time we attend events where important indicators of change can be seen, felt, heard or discussed. Such was the motivation for spending a day recently at the Detroit Auto Show, taking in new designs, technologies and themes related to consumers and transport. With such a vast display of R&D on display, many themes, small and large, jumped out, but I've tried to tackle four key ones here.

Slipping past hordes of mid-level auto industry execs that had cut work for the afternoon to come down and see the show, I was quite surprised at the sameness that greeted me on the show floor. This was my first time at the show, but according to those I spoke with who had attended regularly over the years, my first impression was correct —this year's models showed a bit of sizzle, but no new steak seemed to be served up on the shiny, green-powered plate.

Green, China, high tech and small were the big themes that stood out—which was good for some of the Chinese makers of small electric cars on display, but probably not so great for Ford, GM, DaimlerChrysler etc. The big name automakers seemed to be trying to hedge their bets—espousing green without making a full commitment to it, showing lots of prototype engine technology that may never see the open road, inching toward next generation electronics, with media and navigation, but bland presentation of both, and trying to show the power and muscle they believe Americans demand, without being too big or too thirsty.

But let's take these themes one at a time:

Green, as most attending press have also concluded, was the color of the show (though many of the displays embraced this year's hot color, blue in their designs). Just about every exhibiting manufacturer showed some kind of green engine technology, from Mercedes BlueTec engines to Ferrari's Spider Biofuel—both of which seem to tout the message carmakers think Americans want: eco-conscious without losing horsepower. Ferrari claims it's biofuel design will reduce emissions by 40% by 2012, but it hardly seems to matter considering the minute number of potential Ferrari owners out there, and the fact that most probably aren't concerned about their own carbon emissions.

BWM showed off hydrogen technology, or at least a car badged as hydrogen-powered, but its with mainstream companies such as Honda and Toyota, both of which showed a lot of green leg, that the market will rely on to bring hybrid technology to a broader audience. Toyota's Prius display looked like last year's models, and Honda showed off some recharging technology that looked simple enough for consumers to grasp, though Saturn mixed a little futurism with plug-in power to show off it's Saturn Flextreme concept, which paired a sleek looking car on GM's e-Flex platform with a rear end that holds not one but two Segway electric scooters, allowing drivers to drop the car off and commute the last few miles on two wheels. While it is a little kitsch, it's also the kind of clever combination of transportation modes in a compact fashion that may lure the kind of early adopters of the next generation that Prius has attracted to hybrids.

The problem all around seems to be that everyone is hedging their bets on different shades of green. One display at Toyota's stand told the tale: It was a "gas pump" type kiosk that informed visitors about the benefits of eight different kinds of power: gasoline, diesel, ethanol, biodiesel, propane, CNG or compressed natural gas, hydrogen and electric. This display said it all—most of the majors have their fingers in various pies, waiting for the tipping point to emerge in one or two areas so they can quit guessing. From a consumer's point of view, however, it creates a lot of noise that is hard to see through, giving future buyers of green car technology no clear signal as to the best bet. As happened with Betamax vs. VHS, or Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD for those with shorter memories, consumers will have to stand back and see which handful of technologies wins out. And the various regulatory moves being made around the world in favor of one technology or another are only serving to muddle the picture for the potential end buyer trying to understand what their green driving future looks like. For the moment, it looks like early movers in the hybrid camp may have the edge as they are able to perfect the electric power side of the equation while making a better gasoline engine as other designs only now just move from the design studio to the test track.

Though their entrants were largely confined to the lower level of the Cobo Center, the Chinese cast a long shadow on the show. Here and there one would see Chinese characters on the tail of a new model, and one design stood out as a possible sign of things to come. The Buick Riviera concept that was on show was not new—it had been originally unveiled at the Shanghai Auto Show last year—but it was notable as having been created within GM's Pan Asia Design Center, but as a global concept. Sleek with gullwing doors, the Riviera, to me and those I walked the floor of the show with, had a definite Chinese feel to it, with retrofuturistic lines inside and out—inevitable as it is in part based on themes from Buicks of the 1930s and 1960s. The center console is very retro and very Chinese at the same time, with long thin lines of chrome surrounded by an unfortunately cheap looking blue velvety fabric. I came away thinking more of a Shanghai hotel lobby than anything upon seeing it. Nonetheless, these design cues, created to appeal to up-and-coming middle class Chinese, may become a common element of what we see in the West as design as well as production increasingly shifts east.

Some of the most interesting models downstairs at the show were both Chinese and quite small. Li Guangming's three electric concept vehicles on show also provide a taste of things to come. The three models, Book of Songs, Piece of Cloud and Detroit Fish, were all designed to show an Asian design sensibility of a different sort, as well as the recognition that all new cars on the road in China and India in coming years can't be gasoline-powered. With a range of around 100 miles, and a top speed of just under 30 miles per hour, these funny looking bubbles are probably more appropriate to many Chinese consumers needs in coming years than the high-concept Riviera.

Upstairs, makers of better known small vehicles were the life of the party: Toyota's Scion and BMW Mini. The only two exhibitors that seemed to be enjoying themselves and projecting fun and energy, Scion and Mini continue to pack more features and style into small containers, showing that compact doesn't have to mean simple and stripped down. Of course, neither have anything like an environmentally sound powertrain, but they do help to reinforce the idea that you don't have to have the footprint of an SUV to carry 4 people around town. Both continue to behave like iPods on wheels, with aftermarket accessorization that the iPod generation expects in all products, and more new communication and media technology packed inside. Smooth integration of drivers' favorite gadgets is a must when going after Gen Y, and both companies seem to understand this better than their rivals. VW also seemed to address this need for technology integration inside the vehicle, though with more expensive and larger vehicles. Tata's Nano car, unveiled in Delhi just before the show but not present here, but had potentially the biggest impact of a new car concept unveiled that week, measured in column inches, talk show minutes, and blog posts.

Most of the car makers in the exhibition hall were trying to work in new ways of integrating the consumer's technology lifestyle into the vehicle. VW and Scion seemed to make it an overt part of their marketing, with the German company's displays themselves taking on an air of iPod minimalism. Information and media interfaces ran the gamut from sexy text entry on the Scion's GPS system to a digitally rendered analog radio dial on one Mercedes model. Mini's designers have been working on cramming as many features into a digital interface as possible, and at least one of Chrysler's minivans sported a clearly labelled if poorly executed USB port in its media console. Bluetooth, GPS, satellite radio and external device integration is still the leading edge of what's on offer—Microsoft's SYNC is the ultimate evolution of this movement so far, and even it plays too safe for early adopters. A few concept models showed various means of electric recharging interfaces, and one wonders if this physical connection to the home, garage or charging station won't also eventually carry data as well. 

Overall, there was a big feeling of a pregnant pause in the air, as if an already ailing Detroit was waiting for the other shoe to drop, all out of fresh ideas and knowing it—stuck with big muscle-bound designs in an era that increasingly demands small and efficient. Consumers have a lot to look forward to, both in terms of innovation and confusing new technologies to make their drive more ecologically sound while digitally advanced. Next year's Auto Show will undoubtedly open a new chapter, and the Big Three look to be facing a smaller part in that story.

Check the image gallery for some visual impressions of the event.