A Detroit Yankee in King Elon’s Court

  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
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For the first time in my career, January has come and gone with no major auto show. After years of fighting against flagging automaker interest, the Detroit organizers of the North American International Auto Show threw in the towel and rescheduled their event for June. Which is how I came to attend my first CES (formerly the Consumer Electronics Show) instead, the weeklong extravaganza in Las Vegas that has increasingly overshadowed Detroit over the past decade.

CES 2020 show floorIs that a Lamborghini in that booth over there? At CES, the answer is probably “Yes!” (Photo: Getty Images)

Attention deficit

Now the conventional wisdom for why car companies have shifted away from auto shows while emphasizing CES is that you go where the eyeballs are. Our gadget and technology obsessed culture has made this trade show – which for many years fluffed attendance by scheduling in tandem with the major show for the adult entertainment industry – an annual media storm. Car companies, always desperate for attention since most consumers only think about cars when they need a new one, about every six years or so, have essentially replaced the porno.

Because despite what much of the media might have you believe, cars are still a draw. Walking the show floor of CES, the first thing I noticed ­– hey, there’s a Lamborghini! – is that cars are everywhere, and not just in the booths of automakers and their suppliers. Cool vehicles attract attention in a way that gadgets and screens never will. Yet the other oft-repeated storyline from CES is that the car companies come because they want to associate themselves with tech, in large measure to prove to Wall Street that they, too, are deserving of huge stock valuations. The great irony is that Tesla doesn’t even do CES, although the specter of celebrity CEO Elon Musk looms large over everything here.

Sony Vision-S conceptSony surprised the automotive world by unveiling an electric concept car, the Vision-S. (Photo: Getty Images)

Get on the floor

If tech represents an existential threat to the traditional auto industry, however, you couldn’t tell it from the show floor. Rather, this year’s CES seemed to hint at how Detroit and Silicon Valley might “work across the aisle” to bring us transportation’s future. To wit: The two most significant concept cars at the show came from Mercedes-Benz and Sony, and oddly enough it was the former that had the movie tie-in. Oh, and Toyota is going to build a city. It won’t be on the moon, but this is the kind of bravura stuff that gets people excited.

Mercedes-Benz Vision AVTR conceptNot to be outdone by upstart Sony, Mercedes-Benz, the world’s oldest car company, showed it’s own Vision concept, the AVTR. (Photo: Getty Images)

Deux debuts

Certainly there was little evidence that tech companies are going to obsolete old line carmakers. Case in point: Byton. The Chinese startup showed off a production version of its already dated looking M-Byte crossover whose most distinguishing characteristic is a massive 48-inch screen and a content streaming deal with ViacomCBS. With true self-driving technology still on a distant horizon, that screen is looking more gimmicky than ever. Unless there’s an untapped market for families who want to head out to the garage to watch TV together, Byton may become the canary in the coal mine for tech companies whose business plans adhere to the paradigm of electrification plus autonomy equals easy peasy.

On the other side of the show, however, sits Fisker. You will remember the name, if not from the company that went up in flames in 2013, but because its owner Henrik Fisker was a designer for BMW and Aston Martin before contributing to early Tesla designs. Fisker is back with a new EV, the Ocean, another somewhat generic crossover. But this latest “Tesla-killer” has an affordable price and a 300-mile range, and looks like a good bit better bet to make an impact in the market when it arrives in 2022.

Audi AI:MEAudi’s AI:ME concept could be the basis for a future multi-model mobility service. (Photo: Audi)

Design within reach?

Speaking of design, Audi unveiled yet another autonomous concept, the AI:ME, one color in a palette of cars the company could roll out as part of a future mobility service. The fundamental basis of Audi’s idea is that even in a post-private-car-ownership world, people are going to want to ride around in something with personality. And in the interest of efficiency, those vehicles should be tailored to their intended use for each and every trip. It’s a sound concept – and not just because it doesn’t ignore car enthusiasts, like so many other futurist visions. The emphasis on design as a differentiator is key for Audi, a luxury brand that doesn’t have quite so much prestige as, say, Mercedes, or even Porsche.

The opposite of this approach comes from, unsurprisingly, Hyundai. Its vision of the future involves VTOL shuttles and transportation hubs that can be serviced by autonomous pods that resemble nothing so much as self-propelled Airstream trailers. Wacky? Yes, but only until you see that Hyundai has entered into a partnership with Uber to pursue this utopian/dystopian plot. That – at least in this timeline – Korea’s massive carmaker has essentially capitulated to the idea that Uber or something like it will run them out of the car business is significant, but so too is the solution: Hyundai will build the flying cars – and ostensibly the other parts, the pods and the urban transit hubs, too.

Hyundai/UberHyundai says it will be teaming up with Uber to commercialize VTOL urban transit. (Photo: Getty Images)

Disrupt this

This brings us to a point that has only recently come to be understood by tech companies: The car business is a messy one. It is highly regulated. It involves huge amounts of capital expenditure. And it is complex. Ripe for disruption? Sure, but not without some help on the inside. Which is why big automotive suppliers have flocked to CES as much as carmakers. Indeed, once the rock star CEO leaves the stage, after the flashy website stokes demand with outrageous promises, engineers still need to deliver the products, whether it’s gadgets or phones or, yes, even cars.


About the Author

  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
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