An expected, 700,000 visitors at this year's North American International Auto Show, Jan. 11-24, will see a transformed auto industry focusing on new technologies. The Detroit auto show has historically been the event where automakers trumpet torque and horsepower, but this year car companies are engaged in a fierce battle over styling and integrated technology.
The 700 new vehicles on display at the show range from electric cars to hydrogen fuel cells to plug-in hybrids to traditional gas engines. There are many ways a vehicle's engine can run these days and even more options for customers on styling and features.
Whether it's multimedia interfaces, such as in the new Audi A8, which connects a driver's iPod and Google map directions seamlessly, or plans to modify OnStar technology for the Chevy Volt so that users' smartphones will control some vehicles' functions, automakers are using new launches and concept cars to show they have vehicles that make people's lives easier.
This year's show comes after a year when U.S. auto sales reached their lowest level in nearly three decades. The bankruptcies of two of Detroit's Big Three (Chrysler and General Motors), recalls and huge losses at Toyota sent a shockwave through the industry in 2009. Hoping to attact customers whose perceptions of auto brands may have changed, car companies are using technology innovations to reposition their brand.
"I think what we'll see in 2010 and what is crucial for the car companies is to really build their brands through product," Edmunds.com senior analyst Stephen Berkov told ABC News. "What's happened is the playing field has been leveled by a combination of the economic downtown, increase of gas prices before the economy tanked, lots of new hybrid technology -- and what it means is the whole hierarchy of brands is being reconsidered by the consumers."
When the show opens to the media on Monday, Ford Motor Co. will show off its intuitive MyFord technology, which was a big hit at the Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas. The technology takes the vehicle dashboard and turns it into a sort of all-purpose technology hub through Ford Sync, Ford's partnership with Microsoft.
The invention is an interface personalization computer in which drivers can use a voice recognition system that controls their radios, MP3 player, CD player and navigation device. If that's not enough, users will be able to get their text messages while driving through an audio system that will narrate the texts. And Ford also has plans to add Wi-Fi and Twitter to its MyTouch cars.
Ford says customers will embrace MyFord and Sync because it integrates all the technologies that are essential to the everyday person.
"As we began developing MyFord's capability, we saw this groundswell of new technology, new functionality and incredible capability opening up to consumers," Mark Fields, Ford's president of The Americas said in a statement. "It was readily apparent that unless we devised an intuitive interface to help drivers manage these capabilities, they could detract -- and possibly distract -- from the driving experience."
Ford was the only Detroit automaker to steer clear of bankruptcy and report a profit in the U.S. in the third quarter of 2009. The automaker will also introduce a remodeled Ford Focus, a compact car designed for customers in every region of the world. Ford Fiesta, a European hit, also will be on display.
The Chevy Volt, GM's highly publicized electric car, will likely be the company's most talked about car at the show. The Volt is due into dealer showrooms later this year. Like Ford, GM is hoping to improve sales in the compact and subcompact markets. To that end, the company is showcasing a tweaked Chevy Aveo and the Chevy Cruze at the show. GM has been touting the fact that the Cruze can pump out 40 mpg on the highway and that the car offers 10 airbags.
Cadillac will show its CTS-V coupe while Buick brings out a performance sedan concept car.
GM chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre seemed to downplay expectations at this year's annual gathering, saying during a conference call with reporters last week, "I asked the question [to my staff], 'Do we sell any cars at the auto show?'"
He instead pointed out that the show is a good opportunity for the company to show consumers a "new" GM.
Several companies have built high-tech interactive computers at their exhibits that allow a closer look at vehicles.
Chrysler doesn't have as much to show off this year as its Detroit rivals.
The company, which like GM, emerged from bankruptcy last year, is waiting for new products after integrating its technology with partner Fiat. The products should be unveiled in 2011 and 2012.
This year, Chrysler will present its Electric Fiat 500 concept and its FLO TV package. The Fiat 500 will reportedly have more than 5,000 lithium-ion battery cells and operate on a regenerative braking system that allows it to travel a total of 150 miles on a single charge. A television in cars is not new, but the idea of 20 channels of live programming is. FLO TV allows customers to get ESPN, Fox News, MSNBC, Comedy Central and more. The system will not work while the car is in gear for drivers who have front screens.
Among some of the other technology innovations from automakers that have generated a lot of pre-show buzz: Volvo shows its premium electric hatchback that has a range of 93 miles and fully charges in eight hours.
BMW introduces its electric version of the BMW 1-Series, which has a range of 100 miles and delivers 170 horsepower.
Honda will show off its 2011 Honda CR-Z Hybrid, a new, small, two-door hybrid; Nissan promotes the electric LEAF, which has a solar panel on the spoiler to charge the car's radio and clock; Toyota unveils its all-new third-generation 2010 Toyota Prius.
Toyota estimates its Prius will achieve a combined 50 mpg EPA city and highway ratings. The car uses a 1.8-liter inline-four-cylinder engine to achieve the impressive fuel economy.
Automakers say they want this year's show to transition from a display to an experience.
Several companies have built high-tech interactive computers at their exhibits that allow a closer look at vehicles. Ford's display gives people a 360 degree experience driving a Taurus. GM has touch screens that will feature information about vehicles and their technologies.
The company's hope the interactives make the gadgets and innovations in the cars on display look attractive.
"It is about solutions now," Edmunds.com senior analyst Berkov said. "It used to be if it's a luxury brand, it gives me status. Now it's about can this brand solve my automotive solution because the problems that are coming up now is how do I make my life simple, seemless, smart."