The Detroit Auto Show has a weirdly duplicitous vibe these days. The biggest companies that attend make sure to talk about things that make them sound future-focused, almost benevolent. They talk openly about autonomy, electrification, and even embracing other forms of transportation. But they do this while doling out product announcements that are very much about meeting the current demands of consumers who, enjoying low gas prices, want trucks and crossover SUVs.
Take Mercedes-Benz, which made the biggest splash of the show with the new G-Class. This mega-expensive off-road SUV is explicitly for the wealthy, and was treated by the company as a vehicle so brawny that it hired Arnold Schwarzenegger to appear at the unveiling event. When Schwarzenegger lightly pushed Dieter Zetsche on whether the G-Class would get an electric flavor, the head of Mercedes-Benz semi-flubbed a scripted, non-committal answer about how the company has promised to electrify all its cars in the next decade. (Both before and after this, the new G-Class was celebrated with plumes of fire.)
Ford rolled into Detroit with a new diesel F150, which it announced during (but certainly not at) CES in a press release with a headline that literally read “YOU’RE WELCOME TRUCK FANS!” The company then turned right around and announced it was more than doubling its investment in electric cars to $11 billion.
Announcements like that are en vogue, but look closer, especially in between the lines of these press releases, and you’ll see that the world’s biggest automakers are far more likely to ship hybrids than full electrics in the next few years. And if this surprises you, it might be because they’re all playing a little fast and loose with the term “electrified,” knowing well that it makes them sound like they’re switching over to making EVs even when it really means they’re embracing hybrid technology as a bridge to get there.
And that encapsulates what is on display in Detroit this year. The show is dotted with both practical and idealistic visions of what electric cars should look like, in the form of cars like the new Nissan Leaf or the VW I.D. Crozz. But neither of those were announced at this show. Instead, the announcements this year in Detroit felt more like compromises being made by companies that are lumbering toward the electric future they’re promising. There was the mid-size Ford Ranger pickup, the new Honda Insight hybrid. Even Infiniti’s dashingly futuristic Q Inspiration concept isn’t exclusively electric.
The arrival and success of a company like Tesla made it easier to believe that a changeover to electric vehicles could, maybe even would, happen fast. (I think it demonstrably sped things up, and it’s frankly still unbelievable that any change is happening in the first place.) But even as the world’s biggest automakers continue to make what sound like outrageous, revolutionary pledges to shift to electric technology, it was clear in Detroit that any such meaningful shift is still years away.
And even as these companies start to uphold those pledges, the most aggressive action will likely be focused in countries where governments are mandating a change. Just look at they way Ford’s announcement breaks down — the company promises 40 electrified vehicles by 2022, but only 16 of those will be fully electric, and many of them will be aimed at the Chinese market.
In the meantime, the door is open for the Fords and Chevys and Mercedes-Benzes of the world to sell more internal combustion trucks and SUVs in America. And considering that this is the premier American auto show, and that it takes place in the heart of the industry, those announcements will continue to flow in Detroit. At some point, electric drivetrain technology will be able to support bigger vehicles like trucks and SUVs. (And credit where credit is due, at least the new Ram 1500 unveiled this year is a hybrid.) But if this year’s Detroit Auto Show made anything clear, it’s that these companies will keep a foot on the gas until that day comes.