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Detroit Auto Show Stars Fund Future Promised at CES

— January 18, 2018

For many of us that keep tabs on the automotive industry for a living, the first 2 weeks of January are among the most grueling of the year. The North American International Auto Show in Detroit has kicked off the year for several decades. And in the past 10 years, International CES in Las Vegas has become an increasingly important addition to our schedule as the two events run back to back. The announcements at 2018’s shows illustrated some of the crucial interconnections between the growth of technology and the transportation business.

For automakers, CES has largely been a place where they talk about future technologies and try to shift the media’s perception of them from being old-fashioned metal benders to forward-thinking visionaries. They rarely show actual new products, instead focusing on automated and connected concept vehicles. The Detroit show, like most other auto shows, targets consumers that are buying vehicles in the coming year.

For an industry that is facing the biggest transformation in more than 100 years, this is a crucial time. While many recent auto shows have highlighted new plug-in and hybrid vehicles, there were almost none in Detroit this year. Instead, the biggest announcements came from the Detroit-area manufacturers, and they were all pickup trucks—mostly full-size. Fiat Chrysler unveiled the redesigned 2019 Ram 1500. Chevrolet brought out a new from the ground up Silverado, and Ford launched a diesel version of the F-150 and a midsize Ranger pickup.

Profit in Pickups

Pickups are a segment that is likely to be among the last to gain highly automated driving capabilities, as discussed in Navigant Research’s Market Data: Automated Driving Vehicles forecast and its Leaderboard reports. However, those automation technologies were a major topic of conversation in Las Vegas, particularly in the context of whether manufacturers will build new business models around these costly, complicated, support-intensive vehicles.

That’s why pickups are so important to Detroit. They are the profit engines that keep this industry humming along while indirectly funding R&D efforts that will create the next big things. Part of why Ford is bringing the Ranger back to North America is that the average selling price of an F-150 is now more than $58,000. Pickups and large SUVs generate far more profit per vehicle than any small car and they sell in far larger volumes than any other segment in the American market. Ford is projected to make a full-year 2017 profit of more than $9 billion, largely thanks to sales of nearly 900,000 F-series trucks. Even the third place Fiat Chrysler sold more than 500,000 Ram pickups in 2017.

All three manufacturers are adopting fuel efficiency technologies such as 48 V mild-hybrids, dynamic cylinder deactivation, diesel and active aerodynamics in order to meet fuel economy requirements, as discussed in Navigant Research’s Automotive Fuel Efficiency Strategies report. However, until they all figure out how to make sustainable profits in the new age of mobility, we can rest assured that they will continue pressing ahead with enhancing the customer appeal of these trucks in order to keep the cash flowing to develop the promises made at CES.

 

Perception vs. Reality: CES and the North American International Auto Show

— January 19, 2017

Connected VehiclesIf there is any one lesson that we should all take away from 2016, it’s the confirmation that perception does not necessarily equal reality. What people perceive to be the truth is often the most important part of their decision-making, a concept now shown in the auto industry’s seemingly increasing participation in the International CES and apparently declining interest in Detroit’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS).

There has been a lot of consternation in Michigan recently about the impact that CES has had on the Detroit show over the past decade. The two events tend to run back-to-back over the first 2 weeks of January. I was on hand in 2008 when then-General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner was the first major auto executive to keynote at CES after demonstrating the autonomous Chevrolet Tahoe, which won the DARPA urban challenge the prior year. While more automakers and suppliers than ever took part in CES this year, GM actually took a pass for the first time since Wagoner’s speech.

While the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which organizes the NAIAS, is concerned that manufacturers are increasingly favoring CES, the issues of the auto show are largely unrelated to what’s happening in Vegas. Auto shows are consumer events designed to showcase all of the latest products available for sale, and media previews show what is arriving in the coming months.

With rare exceptions (like 2016, when Chevrolet unveiled the production version of the Bolt EV), new production vehicles are almost never shown at CES. The electronics show is a business-to-business event that isn’t open to the public; instead, the industry flocks to Las Vegas to talk up technology.

NAIAS Is About Reality; CES Is About Perception

For many years, the financial market’s perception of the auto industry has been that of old-school manufacturers of commodity widgets. The view of Silicon Valley and technology companies is that of innovators on the bleeding edge that are poised for explosive growth. Thus, you have investors pouring billions of dollars into startups every year; most of those companies getting all of that investment fail without ever producing anything noteworthy while burning through cash.

Meanwhile, the modern car is one of the most complicated and technologically sophisticated devices ever created and is produced by the latest cutting-edge processes. The industry that produces them employs tens of millions of people globally directly and indirectly, generating trillions of dollars in revenue and tens of billions in profit. Yet the industry gets little respect and low market values.

The presence of the auto industry at CES is designed to reach a group of media that cover companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook alongside countless startups, the same media that investors follow. The goal is to change the perception of the auto business from one that looks like it came from the dawn of the industrial revolution to one that innovates on a daily basis.

That’s not a message you can get across by showing off the refreshed Ford F-150, even though it may be packed with far more technology than anything from Silicon Valley. That’s a message you communicate by demonstrating automated cars in Las Vegas traffic jams; partnership announcements with chip designers like Nvidia won’t reach its intended audience in auto shows in Detroit, Frankfurt, or Geneva. These shows have issues to address, but the fault doesn’t lie in Las Vegas. It’s all about perception.

 

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