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Pretty Curves Abound, But Big Changes Afoot at Detroit Auto Show

DETROIT -- More than 40 of the hundreds of cars, trucks, crossovers and concept vehicles on display at the 2016 North American International Auto Show this week are making their debut. That’s down a bit numberwise from years past, but dramatic changes in the new vehicles go far beyond the sheet-metal modifications that automakers have traditionally unveiled at the show.

The shift was made especially clear during the show’s two day media preview at news conferences held by two of the world’s largest automakers.

Though it rolled out an updated Fusion sedan, Ford officials put the emphasis on their company’s transition from being an automaker to what CEO Mark Fields calls a “mobility company.” Toyota, meanwhile, focused exclusively on a new piece of digital hardware critical to the promised era of autonomous vehicles.

To be sure, there is plenty of new sheet metal on display at Cobo Hall.

Low, wide and sensually sculpted, the Buick Avista is the sort of concept car that has been helping pack them in since the show opened its doors to the public on Saturday.

And Lexus is showing off the LC 500, a new sports coupe based on a wildly popular concept vehicle of a few years back. This 467 horsepower flagship is intended to make sure “no one uses the words ‘boring,’ and ‘Lexus,’ in the same sentence anymore,” declared Akio Toyoda, president of the luxury brand’s parent, Toyota.

The LC 500 is meant to help Lexus challenge traditionally dominant German luxury players like Mercedes-Benz – which has an assortment of its own products to show off, including an all-new version of its mid-range E-Class sedan, its best-selling model in the U.S.

Image: US-AUTO-SHOW
The Lexus LC500 has its North American debut during the company's press conference at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Jan. 11. GEOFF ROBINS / AFP - Getty Images

Also taking shots at the Germans, long-struggling Lincoln is showing off the production version of its well-reviewed Continental sedan. And Hyundai is staging the official debut of its new Genesis luxury brand. That includes the full-size G90, targeting some of the most prestigious products in the luxury segment, such as the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7-Series.

Shaking up the established order is one of the underlying themes of this year’s Detroit Auto Show. Honda hopes to grab a piece of the booming pickup market with its all-new Ridgeline. Kia, traditionally known for its small and affordable sedans, coupes and crossovers, has revealed a full-size pickup concept.

And Chevrolet is showing off the new Bolt, a long-range electric vehicle targeted at the masses, rather than the elites. At 200 miles per charge, it has nearly the range of a Tesla Model S at half the price – about $30,000 after factoring in federal tax credits.

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Sales of electric vehicles actually dipped last year, largely due to the plunge in fuel prices, industry analysts contend. But there are more battery-based models at the 2015 NAIAS than ever before – with still more coming. Mercedes plans 10 plug-in hybrids by 2017, including a version of the new E-Class.

Along with the LC 500, Lexus also showed off a hydrogen-powered concept, the LF-FC, that it hopes to put into production by 2020.

Battery cars, fuel-cell vehicles and other advanced powertrain technologies will be critical for the industry to meet the tough, 54.5 mpg Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards set to phase in between now and 2025.

But that’s only one of the many changes sweeping through the auto industry and likely to mean the cars that will be displayed at the Detroit Auto Show in years ahead will look – and operate – quite differently.

That was made clear at the news conference for the Toyota brand. Instead of showing off a new car or truck, the Japanese giant revealed a new satellite antenna under development by a Washington state start-up called Kymeta. About the size of a pie plate, it will be capable of downloading terabytes of data – something expected to become essential in the era of connected and self-driving vehicles.

Today’s cars already have more microprocessors onboard than you’ll find in the typical home. And that will continue to grow as vehicles begin to plug into new car-to-car and car-to-infrastructure network designed to issue weather and traffic alerts – and, eventually, the information needed for cars to drive autonomously.

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In fact, one of the biggest announcements this past week came from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Secretary Anthony Foxx came to Detroit to announce the Obama Administration’s request for $4 billion to start setting up a nationwide connected car network. The White House also wants to revise federal rules to encourage the development of cutting-edge safety technology.

Highway fatalities have dipped by 40 percent since the 1970s, to around 32,000 in 2014. But Mark Rosekind, the director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, declared a goal of zero highway deaths as new technologies come into widespread use.

Autonomous vehicles could usher in a variety of additional, potentially radical changes. And that’s one reason General Motors this month announced a $500 million investment into ride-sharing service Lyft. Ford, meanwhile, is experimenting with several different ride and car-sharing programs in the U.S. and abroad.

“Mobility” is the new buzzword in the industry, and one that’s being bandied about frequently at Cobo Hall. A new study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute finds that fewer and fewer Americans of all ages are getting driver’s licenses. And even those who are may choose to own fewer cars in the future, relying instead on car or ride-sharing services, said Ford CEO Mark Fields.

So, while the new sheet metal may still be the big draw on the auto show circuit. The real news is the way the industry itself is being reshaped.

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