Automakers, startups descend on Detroit auto show amid industry upheaval

DETROIT — One of the world’s largest auto shows opened to the public Saturday in the Motor City. The 30th North American International Auto Show offers a glimpse into the industry’s newest cars, latest technology and concepts. Although it isn’t expected to break any attendance numbers — last year’s hit 800,000 — the show doesn’t disappoint auto-lovers or the general public.

The show, which runs through Jan. 27 at Cobo Center, attracts 200-plus automakers, suppliers, tech startups and industry players from around the world. This year’s rendition is the last winter date for the show, and Rod Alberts, executive director of the show and the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, said in an interview that an entirely revamped event is to debut June 2020.

Next year’s overhaul will include expanding the show outside the walls of the Cobo Center and into the streets of downtown Detroit and along the riverfront, which will serve as a more active, hands-on area of the show. This year, Kia started a bit early with a small off-road course inside the Cobo Center to showcase its new three-row sport utility vehicle, the Telluride.

U.S. auto sales almost hit record levels last year. By 2020, experts predict an auto recession to dampen auto sales. Factories and workers across the country have been hit hard by closings, most notably General Motors’ announcement in November that it would shutter five plants and slash its salaried workforce by 15 percent. GM’s decision comes as part of its restructuring toward a more SUV and electric-heavy fleet, CNN reports. The once-strong sedan has experienced a 30 percent sales dip in just four years, Bloomberg reports.

President Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel have also eaten into profit margins, automakers have said. GM, Tesla and other automakers have asked the U.S. Trade Representative to waive tariffs on thousands of vehicles imported from China, according to Bloomberg Law. The companies said the tariffs could impact car safety and cause financial strain on the pocketbooks of consumers. Auto suppliers have also asked for tariff exemptions.

This year’s displays had a heavy focus on SUVs, which have emerged as the front-runner nationally, eclipsing 8 million sales in the U.S. last year to hit an all-time record.

NAIAS is also a popular place for automakers to drop big-name debuts. This year, the biggest debut was the long-awaited rebirth of the Toyota Supra (MSRP starting at $49,990), along with Ford’s release of its most powerful car to date: the 2020 Shelby GT500 Mustang (starting at around $70,000). More practical cars and electric concepts made debuts at this year’s show as well. Here’s a sampling:

Kia Telluride
Kia offers show attendees the chance to test drive its first-ever three-row SUV, the Telluride. The small course takes participants up rocky hills and over dirt roads. | Kyle LaHucik

The three-row SUV market is very important to automakers, especially in the U.S. So this year at NAIAS, Kia released its first three-row SUV, the Telluride. The new largest Kia “offers potential for exploration and adventure every time it’s on the road,” the company stated in a press release. According to the release, the Telluride is the first Kia designed specifically for the U.S. market. It will compete with the likes of the all-new, redesigned Ford Explorer.

Ford Explorer
The Ford Explorer, America’s best-selling SUV, returns with its biggest makeover in a decade. | Kyle LaHucik

America’s all-time best-selling SUV has received its biggest makeover in almost a decade. The redesigned cabin offers increased space and technology, including an available 10.1-inch portrait-mounted touch screen that features full-screen maps and traffic-sensing driver-assist technologies.

Infiniti QX Inspiration Concept
The Infiniti QX Inspiration is a concept SUV that could become the brand’s first fully-electric vehicle. | Kyle LaHucik

Nissan capitalized on both the increasing shift toward SUVs and the continuing interest in electric vehicle platforms with its new QX Inspiration. This mid-sized SUV concept serves as a precursor to the brand’s first fully-electric vehicle. The company hasn’t specified a release date. The QX failed to make its way onto the stage for its unveiling to industry and media members on Jan. 14; Infiniti executives had to push it on stage.

Nissan IMs Concept
Nissan unveiled its latest concept, an electric vehicle sports sedan. The automaker plans to expand its electric vehicle collection in the coming years. | Kyle LaHucik

Nissan calls its new EV sedan concept an “elevated sports sedan,” which features full autonomous driving capability. Nissan also announced plans to launch an additional seven electric vehicles by 2022.

Startups make a case for themselves

The show also highlights practical cars and electric concepts and more as part of the AutoMobili-D exhibition.

The next big things? Terrain mapping and autonomous vehicles that can read body language, according to experts gathered to discuss the state of autonomy. David Byron, manager of design and innovation strategy at product innovation firm Sundberg Ferar, said vehicles will determine traffic patterns by considering vehicles already on the road. WaveSense, a terrain-mapping startup, showcased its ground-penetrating technology, which scans 10 feet below ground, on a screen in the AutoMobili-D exhibition.

Sam Abuelsamid, a senior analyst at Navigant Research, said 2019 will usher in the use of behavioral science research to develop machine learning systems to read body language so that autonomous vehicles can predict pedestrian movement.

Other technological advances on display at NAIAS could improve rider safety, increase access to transportation and enhance efficiency:


Want to rent a car the same way you would a Lime or Bird scooter? SwayMobility, a Cleveland-based company, works with local neighborhoods and cities to generate car-sharing programs to add existing resources, especially when it comes to the “last mile” for people who have limited or no access to transportation. While SwayMobility is not available in Missouri, company representatives said cities with highly visible college campuses like Columbia are their target market.

Wise Systems

Wise Systems adapts real-time data to Google Maps to improve routing efficiency for transportation fleets. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company won Techstars Startup of the Year by PlanetM. Anheuser-Busch uses Wise Systems to help dispatch trucks in the most time-effective way, marketing analyst James Agan said.

Halo City

Detroiter Jayson Pankin has been purchasing Halo City electric scooters from China to deploy across the country. He says the foldable electric scooters, which come with helmets, a safety-must, are ideal for college campuses. Fraternities would be a great place to start, he said. The scooters are popular in Europe, and he’d like to increase their visibility in the U.S. Once he gets a solid footing, Pankin said, he’d like to open up a production facility in the Detroit area.

Scooters are here to stay
Although electric scooters took up very little space at the auto show, they still made an appearance. Ford displayed some of its e-scooters, made by company Spin. | Kyle LaHucik

Expect electric scooters to continue to disrupt the mobility market, said Brett Wheatley, Ford’s vice president of mobility marketing and growth. Ford, which recently bought the scooter company Spin, is working with the city of Detroit to help get people to work in neighborhoods where they may not be able to do so.

Wheatley estimates that scooter companies will proliferate much like Uber did over the past 10 years, but faster, hitting 10 million riders in a year compared to the three years it took Uber to hit that mark.

Ford is working with cities and college campuses to implement partnerships for Spin. He said scooters are ridden 10 times more than bikes on college campuses where they’ve developed partnerships. Wheatley said he’d consider looking into the possibility of entering Columbia’s market, which blossomed last fall thanks to Bird and Lime.

Supervising editor is Ruby L. Bailey

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