The Auto Industry Is Afraid of the Future

Deer in the headlights.

Josh Scott

Walking through the North American International Auto Show left me with the proverbial Chinese-food feeling: I had ingested a lot but was left curiously empty.

Where were the spectacular introductions? Where were the jaw-dropping new concepts, boldly going where no designer had ventured before (and maybe for good reason)? Who was hiding the “segment busters,” like a PT Cruiser or the un-loved Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet? Even last year’s hum- drum show held a few nice surprises, like the Kia Stinger.

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This year’s chrome-and-paint acreage offered up hardly anything unexpected. High-end sedans, be they called Buick, Genesis, or Lexus, were draped in sleek, near-perfect but also near-identical sheetmetal. The vast array of crossovers is blending into a visual mush in my (admittedly aging) brain—all well-executed, all capable, all reliable, all safe, invariably with good fuel economy. But the badges are going to have to get bigger, or the average person will no longer be able to tell them apart, assuming they care to.

How does an industry-wide “blanderizing” come about? There are probably a number of reasons, most of which boil down to “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Yet the current industry behavior reminds me of the term “like a deer in the headlights.”

The majority of companies see their established business model in a state of frightening upheaval: Gorgeous coupes languish on the showroom floor. Flawless four-doors are increasingly sales-proof. Pickups and SUVs are sold out and, with their fat profits, make up for losses in cars, hybrids, and electric vehicles, as well as cover the huge outlays needed to make the transition to partial and full autonomy. The latter is reminiscent of Karl Marx’s prophecy of capitalism making one last profit from the noose by which it would hang: Carmakers are compelled to be at the forefront of the driverless movement, even though future millions of fleet-owned modules will be standardized, soulless, and, worst of all, branded Uber or Lyft, rather than BMW, Chevrolet, Ford, or Lexus.

Faced with this future, automakers see the present as time to shuck the frivolities, the bold new concepts that might or might not be successful. Time to focus, to hunker down, stop spending on losers, concentrate on sure winners. Build a financial war chest big enough to buy the necessary technology companies, acquire portions (or all) of the big “mobility fleets,” which will be the profit generators in all but the thinly populated areas of this and other countries.

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Indeed, the specter of the coming revolution in the way humans and goods are moved will terrorize the faint-hearted, while even the brave silently quake in their boots—“It’s coming, it’s coming!”

Yes, but now is not a time for panic. The transition to the controlless car will take decades. It’s not around the corner. Meanwhile, there’s a business to run, and that requires enthusiasm, guts, willingness, and buzz for the public.

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