2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV - photo by Nancy Bowman, NAIAS

Cars, Tech, Obama, Bolt and Bringing the Cool Back to Minivans: Highlights From the Detroit Auto Show

I had the opportunity to attend the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) January 14th, one week before President Obama’s visit this week. From the press reports, our paths were fairly similar (minus the security detail and press pool coverage).

The President was in Detroit to celebrate the resurgence of both the auto industry and the city of Detroit — from bankruptcy to the best auto sales in history last year. Since the GM and Chrysler’s government bailout, U.S. auto manufacturing employment has climbed 49% since its low in June 2009.

Before the tour, President Obama was warmly received by the United Auto Workers at the GM Center for Human Resources, and told them:

“There is only one Detroit. If you are looking for the world’s best cars and the workers who make those cars, you need to be in Detroit, Michigan. The year before I took office, the auto industry laid of 400,000. We were in a free fall. There were no private investors who were going to step up. More than 1 million Americans would have lost their jobs. And not just in the auto industry. Their livelihoods were at stake as well.”

Obama said the structured bankruptcy of GM and Chrysler were worth the investment.

“Because the auto industry came back, it gave the capacity for the city of Detroit to come back. too.”

Only three U.S. presidents in history have visited the Detroit Auto Show in its century-plus of existence: Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960, Bill Clinton in 1999, and now Barack Obama, this week.

Self-Driving Cars + Technology

One of my first stops (and the President’s too) was the ZF stand with its futuristic autonomous driving display. ZF designs and develops sensors, processors and other devices that form the foundation for self-driving cars and are predicting autonomous driving within 2–5 years. (The industry is forecasting fully self-driving vehicles within 9 years.)

Next stop for me was the Denso Corporation, with their “Smart City” display of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure safety technology to allow cars to “talk” or communicate with other surrounding vehicles and traffic signals. They are also “paving the way for autonomous driving”. With 1.24 million people dying in auto accidents worldwide each year, Denso’s vision is a world free of auto accidents.

Automakers, plus Google and possibly Apple, are making sure they’re part of the massive disruption taking place, as we move toward self-driving cars, connected cars, plus electric, hybrid and fuel cell vehicles.

One of the President’s next stops (and mine) was the 2017 Chevy Bolt. The Bolt was personally introduced by General Motor’s CEO Mary Barra at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this month. Bolt will be the first all-electric car in the U.S. with a game-changing 200-mile range. It’s a cute, roomy, 5-passenger, small crossover SUV, packed with advanced technology.

A hallmark of Mary Barra’s tenure at GM, the Bolt will beat the Tesla Model 3 to market by about two years. GM took the Bolt EV from concept to production-ready in lightening speed (for automakers) — just 12 months.

The 2017 Chevy Bolt addresses the apprehension and fear about buying electric vehicles:

  • Will I run out of power and be stranded? It has a 200-mile range.
  • Will it take hours to recharge? Just 60 minutes to get to 80%.
  • Will I have room for passengers? 5 adults with lots of space.
  • Will it look goofy? Nope-It’s a really cute, crossover SUV.
  • Will I enjoy the drive? According to Forbes auto editor Joann Muller, Bolt is “peppy and responsive as you’d expect an electric car to be, and handles corners like a little rally car.” It also accelerates from 0 to 60 in under 7 seconds.
  • Is it too pricey? The Bolt will sell for $30,000 at $35,000 less $5,000 in green government rebates — with no gas fill-ups — ever.

Mary Barra:

“GM has engineered Bolt with future car-sharing in mind, including extra durability of inside materials as well as access to apps and services that personalize the driving experience and, with machine learning, will enable Bolt to get “smarter” every day as drivers can access the cloud for data about the collective experience of Bolt owners. The Bolt is more than just a car. It’s an upgradeable platform for new technologies. This isn’t some science project.”

The Nissan Leaf, VW eGolf, Kia Soul EV, Ford Focus Electric, BMW i3 and Mercedes-Benz B-class electric cars preceded the Bolt EV, but not one comes close to 200-mile range (yet).

The President has been a major backer of EVs while in office, but range, high sticker prices and low gas prices have stymied the goal of 1 million EV’s on the road by 2015. This number is now expected to be reached by 2020.

Like the President, I visited the Chrysler exhibit to look at the Pacifica model minivan. Chrysler invented the minivan 30 years ago, and Fiat Chrysler Automobile has reinvented it with the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica and the plug-in hybrid model of the Chrysler Pacifica minivan. Who would have thought that a minivan would be such a highlight with critics, with many calling it the “star of the show”? (The Town & Country name has been retired.) The Chrysler Pacifica offers fresh styling, loads of new technology, comfort and safety features, and the hybrid version gets 80 miles-per-gallon. Chrysler aims to bring back the “cool” to minivans. As Obama quipped to the press pool:

“Beautiful. You guys remember ‘Get Shorty,’ right?…It’s cool driving a minivan.”

President Obama’s last stop was the Ford Motor Company stand, where he viewed the 2017 Ford Escape (as did I), along with the Ford Edge and Ford Explorer… (here’s my pic from the Ford stand) –

The 2017 Escape gives customers more of what they want, improved design, an improved ride, more space, Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment system, driver’s assist technologies, two EccoBoost engines with start/stop technology to save fuel in heavy traffic, and Sync Connect for remote vehicle access.

Ford says the average American sits 16 minutes a day in traffic, which wastes 3.8 billion gallons of gasoline each day. Start/stop technology can help alleviate that problem.

SUVs now account for about one third of the U.S. auto industry sales, a number Ford projects will grow to 40% by 2020. The Escape is Ford’s second best selling vehicle behind the F-150 pickup, putting it just behind the Honda CR-V in the popular small SUV segment.

Small SUV’s are extremely popular with the 45+ crowd as they downsize from minivans and larger SUV’s (and they’re the demographic with money to spend). It’s noteworthy that more than 46% of premium Ford Escape Titanium buyers are 56 or older, indicating trendsetting boomers (who account for 63% of car sales), are opting for high-series models loaded with technology and amenities.

The President will be in the market for a new vehicle soon, and joked about having to browse for a new car at the show. When his final term ends next January, Obama will turn in his armored presidential limousine, a Cadillac known as “the Beast”. I wonder what he’ll be driving in 2017?

Meanwhile, the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) runs through January 24, 2016 at the COBO Center in Detroit and is currently open to the public.

Sources: Auto Week, Breibart, Denso, Detroit Free Press, Forbes, Fortune, Green Car Congress, Green Car Reports, ZF

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