The Fight for the Future of Mobility

04 February, 2019

January is a hectic month for the automotive industry. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, where autonomous vehicles have been increasingly prominent in recent years, kicks off a three-week stretch that also includes the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) and Automotive News World Congress (ANWC), both in Detroit, and finally the National Automotive Dealers Association (NADA) Show. Next year will be different – NAIAS is slated to move to June, making for a welcomed slower start to 2020.

With change in the air, maybe it isn’t too surprising that I was struck by a bit of nostalgia while walking through the exhibition space at NAIAS for the last January show. Not too long ago, in what felt like simpler days for the auto industry, it wasn’t difficult to extract an obvious theme from the event each year. Maybe it was a “green” show, with lots of hybrids and electric vehicles on display. Or it was a pickup battle with horsepower and torque front and center. You could always count on a number of very cool, and sometimes head scratching, concept vehicles that hinted at a next-gen design strategy or gave companies an opportunity to showcase what the future might hold. Every press conference was swarmed by countless journalists clamoring to see what vehicles were being unveiled – a secret often kept until the very last moment. From an industry analyst’s perspective, it was akin to our own version of a Hollywood movie premier.

These days, while much remains familiar about the show, some things are noticeably different. Yes, light trucks still dominate the U.S. market, with SUVs, pickups and crossovers commanding a nearly 70 percent share – and this year’s vehicle launches largely reflected that reality. There were a few concept vehicles too, but they mostly represented their makers’ near-term plans. Gone, however, are the days of vehicle launches cloaked in secrecy. Nowadays, almost all of the products are announced in advance, so no more guessing games. On top of that, an increasing number of vehicle debuts are done at events separate from the show itself, which keeps companies from having to share too much of the spotlight.

The 2020 NAIAS show will likely be very different. In addition to its move to the summer, its footprint and mandate are expected to evolve as well. Warmer weather means the ability to grow the exhibition space outside, allowing for more open air, interactive experiences that can better integrate the changing landscape of the city itself. There will also be a strong push to return NAIAS to the showcase of what the industry could be instead of what it currently is, a role that has largely been taken over by CES.

Don’t expect the Las Vegas show’s influence to fade anytime soon, however. Not only has it dedicated additional space to the automotive industry in recent years, it has shown an innate ability to bring multiple sectors together under the umbrella of Mobility. A panel discussion I had the opportunity to participate in, titled Vehicle Tech’s Next Big Thing, was a perfect reflection of this convergence. My fellow panelists and I covered a number of emerging technologies that have the potential to transform the car and its extended ecosystem, from advanced user experience interfaces to integrated virtual assistants and facial recognition systems, among others. We also discussed the overriding goals for developing these technologies – making travel easier, safer and more affordable for everyone. Many perceive this to be solely a technological hurdle, but it’s much more than that and will require collaboration and input from nearly all areas of society. While many challenges remain, both private and public entities are increasingly working together to address growing concerns around congestion. Gridlock will likely get worse before it gets better, but there are a number of potential solutions that can be leveraged. PwC’s recent report “An Ecosystem Approach to Reducing Congestion” analyzes these issues.

Heading from CES to Detroit for the Automotive News World Congress further confirmed the near impossibility of finding consensus about how quickly we will see a CASE (Connected, Autonomous, Shared, and Electric). While most generally agree that we’ll eventually live in a nearly fully autonomous and electric world with seamless multimodal transportation options, no one can say for certain when. Much of this has to do with the unpredictability of so many variables, including safety, cost, reliability and trust tipping points for numerous technologies, not to mention the regulatory environment and disparate operating conditions around the world.

While today’s automotive sector commands our attention and provides a number of unique challenges and opportunities in itself, we must continue to push for innovation, even with an unknown timeline. This is particularly true as many participants begin to make difficult business decisions, balancing the need to prepare for the next economic downturn while continuing to invest and test technologies and business models that will enable the next generation of mobility. The evolutionary progress, and failures, we experience today are planting the seeds for the potential revolutionary change that will be required in the future as we continue to think about what could be.

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