Automotive multiple personality disorder

Departments - Editor’s page

Subscribe
February 4, 2019

The future of the auto industry is shared, autonomous, electric mobility. So, who wants to buy a big SUV?

Automotive manufacturers have always delivered mixed messages – talking about the need for environmentally friendly technologies while earning profits on gas guzzlers. But the split between current actions and future plans has never seemed this drastic.

General Motors (GM) and Ford announced plans last year to minimize car production and focus on trucks, SUVs, and crossovers for the near future. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) was the fastest-growing manufacturer (page 14) for following just that strategy.

But go to an auto show or listen to company officials speak, and they focus almost entirely on a vision of automotive yet to come – a world of self-driving, electric vehicles that reduce energy use, clean the air, provide mobility to more people, and reduce congestion.

So, which is it? Do consumers want big, multi-seat vehicles that get 20mpg, or do they want self-driving Tesla Model 3 electric vehicles (EVs)?

Apparently, the answer is both.

EV sales more than doubled last year, rising sharply alongside the growth of gas guzzlers. They are still less than 2% of overall auto sales but growing quickly. I don’t envy the product planning gurus at the manufacturers who have to read those tea leaves. With consumers heading in different directions, the solution appears to be investing in everything.

As automakers cut development and production on traditional cars, they’re investing in boosting SUV capacity and buying tech startups to develop autonomous technologies.

GM hopes to position Cadillac against Tesla, making the luxury brand associated with drivers of a certain age a hip, young brand for environmentally minded buyers. Nissan’s new Leaf EV is promising a longer range, Honda’s Insight plug-in hybrid debuted last year, and GM plans to increase availability of the Chevrolet Bolt EV.

ZF and Aisin, companies that used to focus the vast majority of their development dollars on vehicle transmissions, had booths littered with electric drive inverters, motors, and controllers at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

I can’t predict how long EV growth will continue at this pace or how long the SUV/crossover boom can last. I thought the early 2018 predictions for lower sales sounded reasonable and was pleasantly surprised by the uptick. Heck, I’m still surprised the Cleveland Browns won more games last year than three years combined.

While it’s investing in ride-sharing startups, Ford is also expanding Expedition SUV capacity in Louisville, Kentucky. Jeep plans to launch its Gladiator pickup this year and an electric version of the Wrangler in 2020.

However, we can track and analyze trends as these markets develop. Last year, we added dedicated coverage of autonomous vehicles to the magazine (page 29), and this year, each issue will also feature electric drive news (page 28).

Shifting consumer demand, new technologies, disruptive business models, and whiplash-inducing regulatory changes are making the motor vehicles market harder to predict. It’s an exciting, scary time filled with opportunities and risk, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.