Detroit Auto Show Uncoverage

Here’s what you need to know about the auto show if you only have a minute: Ford has been having a great show, winning both Car and Truck of the Year awards. There’s nothing special about Ford’s truck winner, the Transit Connect van—it is nearly identical to GM’s Combo, Fiat’s Fiorino, Peugeot’s Partner, or Citroen’s Berlingo, to name a few. Unfortunately, all of these machines are stuck in Europe without passports. Perhaps the success of the Transit will lead their manufacturers to import these competitors. The Ford Focus won the car award, deservedly so for the company’s bread and butter world car.

Chrysler came to the show playing the struggling subdivision of Fiat (which now owns 20 percent of the company), having nothing much to offer but the promise of an electric Cinquecento [reviewed here] and a new Lancia wearing a Chrysler badge.

For General Motors the picture is more mixed. Like the company, its auto show presence has shrunk considerably. Having been sold off to competitors or buried entirely, Hummer, Pontiac, Saturn, and Saab are gone. What is left may or may not prove successful: small, cheap transportation from Chevrolet and a bit of excitement still left at Cadillac. These are the Chevrolet Cruze and the unique hybrid-electric Chevrolet Volt. Both cars show what the new GM might do right and what it continues to do quite wrong.

The Cruze has actually been on the world’s roads for some time, though it is new to the US market. It replaces the Chevrolet Cobalt, a solid small sedan with a nice personality and good looks. When I had a Cobalt automatic on an extended test in 2005 it served my family of four well, being fun and thrifty to drive with plenty of room for everyone and our camping gear. The Cruze should continue in that vein, though the name alone is a worrying sign. Whatever street cred the company might earn from its bad spelling is more than undermined by its retro-1980s feel. Look for black T-shirts with day-glo lettering and a super-kool “Z” (the kind with the long comet tail) on sale at a boardwalk near you. Older buyers will continue to feel more comfortable telling friends that they have two Honda Civics in the driveway rather than struggle with pluralizing Cruze.

The Chevrolet Volt has long been vaporware, a machine promised anytime Congress asks about the Toyota Prius, but never in production. A car of the future that always will be a car of the future. Now GM says production starts this year. That’s very exciting news. The Volt is expected to travel 40 miles on electric power alone with a gasoline motor that kicks in to provide unlimited range after that. Because most Americans drive far fewer than 40 miles a day, this could be a full-on electric car for most people most of the time. The only trouble is that the company that killed the electric car—the GM EV-1 eulogized in the 2006 film—may want to smother this machine in its crib, too. Production numbers have been scaled back from 60,000 units to 10,000; that’s still a significant number but there’s no reason to be confident it won’t shrink further. Those who saw the original concept car, sort of a Camaro that might hit showrooms in 2050, may be disappointed that the car will actually be a modified Cruze and look a lot more like a Toyota Prius than is healthy. In fact, the Volt will have better battery technology than the Prius and its promise of all-electric drive leapfrogs the environmental benefits of the Toyota. So we’ll see.

There is one final bit of buzz coming out of the auto show, linked mostly to Ford but more of an industry-wide trend: internet-enabled automobiles. The plan to have your desktop on the dashboard while driving has brought all of the NPR/New York Times hand-wringers out of the woodwork. The Times has made “distracted driving” a significant part of its activist journalism, sharing the spotlight lately with tainted meat. The evidence is clear that using your cell phone is dangerous, texting in the car is more dangerous still, and updating your Facebook status at highway speeds can’t be healthy. It is also clear that the cell phone makers knew that driving and talking on the phone was dangerous even back when they were called “car phones.” There sure is a lot of sinful behavior out there for the scolds to yammer about.

But it misses the point: driving is the distraction. Americans drive three trillion miles a year; they probably enjoy driving only a few hundred of those. In an age when our jobs are being automated, surely the simple task of driving could be automated too. That’s where Volvo’s new City Safety System comes in: it watches traffic and hits the brakes before the car hits something else. Volvo keeps showing the system off, but Swedish propriety seems to demand that they understate its importance. That doesn’t mean we have to. Along with other emerging technologies like infrared cameras, driver monitoring systems, lane departure warning systems and adaptive cruise control, the sophisticated Volvo system points the way toward cars that drive themselves.

Of course the automakers have to keep the wool over our eyes as they lead us down a road where we will watch YouTube while the cars do the driving. For one thing, they are still selling the excitement of driving a powerful machine on a lonely twisting track some cool autumn morning. For another, they live in fear of Ralph Nader giving up politics to return to his first love. Woe betide the first self-driving car that runs over a nun. Meanwhile the companies’ needs and fears jibe well with the continuing conservatism of American politics and culture. How can we preach against alcohol when drunk driving is suddenly safe? How can we keep our children under control when any 10-year-old can safely drive to the mall?

Like it or not, that is the truly exciting news coming out of the Detroit auto show for the city, for Michigan, and for those who want a domestic auto industry. Robot cars are on their way.

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