Q&A: The road ahead

Automotive journalist Chuck Tannert shared his key takeaways from the Detroit auto show and offered predictions for some of the innovative vehicles consumers will see in the near and long term.

Automotive journalist Chuck Tannert sat for a Q&A with PRWeek editor-in-chief Steve Barrett following the roundtable. He shared his key takeaways from the Detroit auto show and offered predictions for some of the innovative vehicles consumers will see in the near and long term.

Steve Barrett: What are your impressions about this year's Detroit show and the industry's overall health?

Chuck Tannert: The auto industry has rebounded to almost pre-recession levels. A trend this year – performance is a value sell. Cars with 300-plus horsepower are back. Companies are actually showing them, not just clay models. Over the last few years, there wasn't this exciting crop of vehicles coming out. But now you saw four or five things that actually could be called sexy.

The Corvette Z06, new Mustang, Silverado, Ford F-150, and the Mercedes C-Class all come to mind. BMW and Infiniti both changed their nomenclature. It was a challenge figuring out what the new M3 and M4 are, but what BMW showed was very sexy.

Volkswagen's news-show-format presentation was good. You thought you were on SportsCenter in many ways. Kelly Rowland helped Mercedes unveil its new models. Those types of things are nice, though in Europe they do it more. It's more of a show within a show.

Barrett: What makes a great auto show for a journalist?

Tannert: We want access to the cars. We want photos. We want the information nobody can get, the inside story. As a journalist, it's my job to make that excitement come out. If I feel a car is exciting, but I can't get photos or information, it makes it tough. I can tweet about it, but I can't do a story.

Barrett: Between auto journalists, lifestyle and consumer journalists, bloggers, videographers, broadcasters, and even brands' own in-house content generators, how do you stand out?

Tannert: Preparation and making relationships. I won't get too many stories out of this show by simply going from press conference to press conference. But if I talk to individuals before, or I get embargoed information, I can ask targeted or strategic questions. If I don't have those relationships, I am simply doing a new product section and not bringing insight to it.

Enthusiasts like to read about the nuts and bolts. The general consumer is a little different. My philosophy on bringing information to them is to make them dangerous on a barstool or at a dinner party.

Barrett: You were at this year's CES, a show that has rapidly grown to be a place where auto brands are promoted. The big stories there were also seen in Detroit. What's the difference in the way you cover it? How is it changing the way auto companies are communicating?

Tannert: In the last four years, auto company communications with Silicon Valley and other tier ones has opened up. Automakers have realized that it's OK not to do everything. It's OK not to have everything created in house, especially where technology is concerned. They have opened their doors to outside and it's a good thing.

CES is a behemoth. Covering it is interesting from a technology standpoint, especially with cars, which didn't come into play at CES until about seven years ago with the Sync system. It changed everything in terms of putting a computer in a car – and not just because it played music and you could sync it with your iPod. It put a computer in a car for $349. Geeks like myself looked at it like, “What else could you do with a computer in a car?” and there was so much more.

CES brings that really tech savvy audience into it. The focus this year was more on the connected car and the difference between that and basically these self-driving technologies coming out now. A lot of auto companies say they connect and they do, but one's more about entertainment, while the other is a safety issue or basically the DNA of the car.

Barrett: You've done some interesting pieces recently on driverless and self-driving cars. What can we expect to see on this front in the near and distant future?

Tannert: Google says it will have a self-driving car in five years. It's doable, but you're not going to get the George Jetsonian fantasy. That won't happen for decades. There is an incremental rollout of these basically autonomous technologies that will happen.

Will we have a self-driving car by 2020? If you look on the road now, there's a product called Lane Keeping. You must keep aware of what you're doing on the road, but it's very close to autonomous.

I recently tested the Infiniti 250 on I-95 north of Boston. No inputs, no brakes, no accelerator, no steering, and it stuck within the lane – and it's affordable. They have the same thing for $120,000 in an S-Class Mercedes and that is trickling down.

Now it depends on how they roll this out. You'll probably see an autopilot by 2020, but nobody knows. The technology to do it is there today. The software is the problem. It's that learning. It's like teaching a computer to drive and think like you behind the wheel.

By 2030, there will be a smarter autopilot because there will be more data. You need immense amounts of data to be accurate. More importantly, these technologies must make people feel comfortable to take their hands off the wheel. Right now, they don't.

We will probably have driverless vehicles by 2035. Will they be ubiquitous? No. They will have to figure out how to blend them into the automotive landscape. There will not come a day where a switch is thrown and every single car will be driverless. And remember, there are differences between self-driving cars and driverless cars. One's a drone. One has an autopilot, just like on a plane.

Barrett: What else are you seeing in terms of technology and how the focus on that is impacting car-purchasing decisions?

Tannert: It's an issue of cost. When looking at how cost affects the widespread acceptance of these technologies, there are two camps – those who have money and those who basically are value-oriented. The BMWs, Audis, Mercedes of the world, their clientele can afford to buy these technologies. The GMs, Fords, Chryslers, those clients have to watch their money a little closer.

In a recent IHS study, people were asked whether they would like these technologies. More than 90% said they would. However, 0% said they would pay $3,000 or more for those technologies. Zero. That didn't happen with electric cars and that scares me a bit because lots of media outlets have been touting that it's a safety issue. We can save millions of people from getting hurt with innovations such as line-spot monitoring, lane keeping, and adaptive cruise control. These are all features on a car that can save lives when used properly. And they're exciting. The development of these technologies and more over the next 30 years will make the auto industry really fun to watch.

Barrett: Environmental impact is clearly part of the purchasing decision, particularly for younger consumers. How is that playing out in your view?

Tannert: A younger audience will look for a hybrid, electric, or some form of the two – and the environment is important to them. Right now, the only environment that matters in many people's minds is what is in the law, which is not bad. It's just what we do.

Hybrid and electric cars will be great when we work out the bugs. The Prius is fun, but it's an appliance, though it has good hybrid technology. There are other hybrids. Audi came out with a 700-horsepower hybrid at CES. That's impressive. Granted, most of the horsepower comes from a V8, which is gas guzzling. Basically, by the time everything is driverless it's going to be electric or a hybrid.  

Barrett: The issue of where cars are manufactured is a big selling point, particularly within countries. How important is it for an automaker to have homegrown production?

Tannert: In the US, nationalism is prevalent in a certain age and above. My father would only buy American cars, whether they were good or not.

The funny thing is that many companies are investing a lot of money in other places around the world to build their cars. There are a lot of foreign manufacturers that are not necessarily building every part of the car, but certainly key parts of it.

For my generation – and certainly the ones following it – it really doesn't matter. Chip sets are built in Asia, none of which is done here. There are hundreds of ECUs (engine control unit) in some cars, none manufactured here.

Today's generation understands it's a global economy. Look at what Ford, an American brand, did during the recession. It made a good decision and basically sold everything to prepare itself for it. It didn't take bailout money. It had nothing to do with whether its cars were built here or anywhere.

They just made a smart decision not to do it and it was better than any marketing anybody could ever do. Again, it's a global economy. I don't think [a complete focus on where cars are built] works now.

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