DETROIT, MICHIGAN —
In 2009, the U.S. auto industry was on the verge of collapse, as consumers stopped buying new vehicles during the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Government financing saved several manufacturers from shutdown and now, seven years later, a revitalized — albeit leaner — auto industry is on display at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. There's more on display, and on the horizon, than just new cars and trucks.
The biggest news at this year's auto show is not about the autos at all — it's what manufacturers are planning to put in them.
"Every automaker here at the show is launching some form of cool technology inside the vehicles, whether it's adaptive cruise control or Smart Stop Technology, or even utilizing 3-D printing to print out and create the interior of your vehicle," said Michael Caudill, a U.S. automotive expert.
Technology and "mobility" were, in fact, the themes of the Ford Motor Company's presentation during the press preview this year.
U.S. Senator Gary Peters, U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, and Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Industry and Analysis Marcus Jadotte tour the Ford exhibit during the first press day at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. (K. Farabaugh/VOA)
"Ford's smart mobility is our plan to be a leader in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, customer experience, and data and analytics," said Ford CEO and President Mark Fields.
Ford is testing autonomous vehicles in various weather conditions with the hopes of having driverless cars on the road by 2020. It also is opening retail stores throughout the world where customers can interact with new technological offerings, including an app and a customer loyalty rewards program.
"My great-grandfather changed the way the world moved with the Model T in very fundamental ways,” said Bill Ford Jr., the company's executive chairman. “So we have the same opportunity now in a very different era with very different challenges in front of us."
‘Maximizing your mpg’
Ford's efforts to keep customers engaged, and returning, comes at a time when overall U.S. sales reached 10-year highs in 2015.
"Numbers are up for automakers," Caudill said. "If you think about it actually, the compact SUV market is up 11 percent over last year, actually beating out sedans, so consumers are looking for affordability."
Attendees look over the 2017 Honda Ridgeline after it was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Jan. 11, 2016.
To meet the increased demand, production in the hemisphere has ramped up.
"For North America, it will be about 17-and-a-half million for 2015, and upwards of 18 million in 2016," said Kevin Kerrigan, senior vice president of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
Much of what customers will find in dealer showrooms this year is on display at the Detroit auto show, including more fuel efficient, but larger, vehicles.
"That's simply about maximizing your miles per gallon," Caudill said. "It's a big part of what automakers are doing on the gas side of the business. How many miles can I get on one tank of gasoline?"
That tank of gasoline is much cheaper today, thanks to the global drop in oil prices. In many parts of the U.S., gasoline is less than $2 a gallon. Even so, highly fuel-efficient and electric-powered vehicles are still a dominant presence on the show floor because, according to Caudill, manufacturers have little choice.
"All automakers by 2025 have to meet certain emissions and fuel economy requirements, so they are hedging their bets by getting there sooner rather than later," he said.
The North American International Auto Show runs through January 24. President Barack Obama plans to visit the show floor January 20.