2018 Ford GT at Detroit Auto Show

Image courtesy of Maury Fredricks

Just returned from a trip to attend the Industry Preview Days at the Autoshow in Detroit. It’s about a three-hour drive down I-96 from our home in Grand Haven. Typically, drivers are doing an average of 15 over the prescribed limit and traffic is tight in spots. You can move swiftly across the state and it’s worth the drive to check out the NAIAS, the Autoshow. As designers and engineers, we go to witness and take note of styling and technical trends. For us, it’s a bit of a museum of the past and lens to the future. Ironically, the most innovative vehicles shown may be the death of the show itself.

As I confirmed through multiple conversations at Cobo Hall, the show is dying from the inside. Difficult to change the course of a large ship and the NAIAS is at risk of not being able to adapt to the blurring social and technological landscape.

A portion of the show floor, known as “AutomobiliD”, was dedicated to smaller, agile startups. Although it was quietly placed downstairs and not exactly easy to stumble upon, this area of the show represented where the overall show should be focused to remain relevant. Companies in this area were presenting future technologies and alternative modes of transport (e.g. a compact aircraft that could rotate its props to land vertically). Interestingly, “AutomobiliD” technologies that threaten to kill the show as we know it was tucked away like a life-threatening wound under a shoddy bandage.

The Autoshow was created in 1907[1] to boost sales, party, and elevate moods during the cold, dark Michigan winters. The architects of the show built a party atmosphere around the automobile, celebrating the new models coming out each year. Nowadays, next year’s models are released in late summer, making the show a bit of stale news in January. There are a few companies still putting out some interesting concept vehicles and showing next year’s vehicles, but most of the floor is littered with less than alluring repeats.

Many, if not all the major car companies, are timidly showing their visions of autonomous vehicles as they threaten to completely upend their current products. Major suppliers are a bit bolder about their visions as they can easily transform their business model into supplying seating or interior trim components for a subscription-based vehicle fleet. Adient featured a beautiful concept demonstrator that illustrated the potential for comfort, entertainment, and utility within an autonomous vehicle. The OEMs may have a much more difficult time figuring out how to adapt to the approaching business models of mobility.

As many are predicting, vehicles will no longer have a single owner as autonomous vehicle subscription services will eventually offer more convenience, greater comfort, improved safety, and all at a lower cost. Imagine whippin’ out your phone, calling up your ride service, and hopping into a cabin that resembles a luxury seat on an international flight (depending on your budget). While being transported to your destination, you’re free to get some work done, take a nap, or flip through the various moving landscapes rendered on the interior of your windows. This scenario already exists with Uber and Lyft, but all of this will happen without needing to make small talk. One such company that is perceived to be leading is Local Motors. Below is their vehicle, “Olli”.

image source: https://localmotors.com/meet-olli/

Although most of my tone has been pretty dark, OEMs are still making beautiful vehicles. As a designer who has had the pleasure of designing a few automotive components, I found myself pouring over the minutia contained in every detail of the new models. When you are realizing your sketches through a CAD station, you can zoom into every detail and the need to blend forms and surfaces is paramount. The level of detail and incredible surfaces that are developed today are truly remarkable. Take a look at this shot of the Audi R8:

Image Courtesy of Ben Fredricks

Another positive is that OEMs do have the opportunity to adapt and are already working on their big ideas behind closed doors. They may be keeping their cards close to the vest in terms of autonomous development, but with good reason. The new mobility landscape presents an entirely new economy that is up for grabs. Minds will be blown with the new innovations to come.

In whatever fashion you may travel in the future, there will be someone competing to take you there. The next 15 years will be an extremely interesting time for transportation. The competition to take you places will breed glowing ingenuity. How will the market respond and who will win out? Companies will need to nearly destroy themselves in this transformation and the Autoshow will need to reinvent itself just as quickly to remain relevant in the shadow of CES. Let the games begin!

Ben Fredricks

Industrial Designer

Fredricks Design, Inc.

Fredricks Design, Inc. is a full-service design and engineering firm based in Grand Haven, Michigan. The firm specializes in working as an extension of the client studio and engineering team to identify the right problems and accelerate development of solutions from early ideation, feasibility, concept development and production of mock-ups, prototypes and show properties. Fredricks works with key Clients in the automotive interiors and seating industries, advanced rides and show action projects for themed attractions, furniture, and consumer products markets.


[1] “Show History.” naias.com/about/auto-show-history/. NAIAS, 2018. Web. 31 January 2018.

Explore our previous visits to the Autoshow:

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