We caught up with one of the brightest and most respected minds covering the auto industry, Joe Wiesenfelder, at the North American International Auto Show. He’s the Executive Editor of Cars.com and has driven pretty much every kind of vehicle ever made. He was part of the Cars.com launch team back in 1997 and his first car was a 1971 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with a 455-cubic-inch engine.
Daily Detroit: What are some of your impressions of the show?
Joe Wiesenfelder: Interesting mix of things at the show here. What’s probably most interesting is it’s not heavily SUV, even though the market is doing really well with SUVs and pickup trucks because gas prices are so low. A lot of cars. There’s actually one pickup truck. The Honda Ridgeline was redesigned, and that was always an interesting vehicle with lots of little innovations about how the tailgate worked and stuff, but it never really made a dent, not even as much as the other Japanese auto makers have in the domestic, full-size pickup realm, but it seems like it’s going to be a good mix this year.
Daily: How much of that do you think is driven by the longer cycles of product development and things like that? It was not that long ago that we had gas seriously over $3 a gallon. It takes awhile for things to catch up to that, doesn’t it?
Wiesenfelder: Yeah, the automakers can’t react quickly enough. They can emphasize some things over other things, but we saw last year in the auto show season, the Chevy Volt came out and gas prices were already low then.
Likewise, the Chevrolet Bolt, as in lightening bolt, not volt as in high voltage, it is strictly a battery electric EV with no gas backup. It was actually introduced last week at the Consumer Electronics Show first. Certainly not good timing; I mean, gas prices are so low. Demand is never super high for electric cars, and for what it’s worth, it’s probably not really going to hit dealerships for about a year anyway.
Who knows what will happen by then? I think generally speaking, products like those are what they are, and it’s hard to look at any one auto show and say that this is a reflection of any trend. The manufacturers are putting three to five years into development on each car that’s new or redesigned.
Daily: Let’s talk about that and how it relates to technology. One of the things that I thought was interesting was Ford finally has real integration for Apple’s CarPlay. How much does this cycle involve tech and is it something where do you think cars would be able to iterate faster with a better software platform, where you could do in-car updates to freshen the car, even though you don’t freshen the model?
Wiesenfelder: I think one of the things that the manufacturers are struggling with the most now is how to make the car evolve over time the way everyone expects them to, because we’ve become used to it from our devices, right? If you buy a car with a navigation system these days with an embedded, as they call it, navigation system, you’re probably driving off a lot with something that’s already out of date; certainly the map is, whereas if you use your phone, then it’s always up-to-date. The app updates every few weeks, the maps are always live, and that’s one of the advantages of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
What’s happening with automakers is they’re being forced to get into an area they’ve never been in, where what’s in the dashboard can be updated. Now, you can update let’s say Ford’s sync system. I think what they would do is mail out a USB drive and you’d plug it in, and there are other ways of doing it, but so far, Tesla is the only car company that does wireless, over-the-air updates. In their case, it’s not just what’s in the dashboard, it’s the actual functionality of the car. The automakers recognize they have to get into this area, but there are two main things they’re concerned about. One is security. The headlines would have you believe that every car out there can be hacked wirelessly and we’re all doomed.
Daily: Car security is something that I think a lot of people are concerned about.
Wiesenfelder: It is a legitimate concern. Definitely more of a concern for the manufacturers than for any given consumer, but that is also one of the reasons that most automakers have held off on doing any kind of over-the-air updates. I can tell you we, just as an example, Cars.com owned one each of the first Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, and in the early days, they needed to be reflashed two or three times as incremental updates, or even one was a recall, and that means going to the dealership and having them go through I think sixty-five pages in a manual and doing all these steps. It would be better to do that wirelessly, but they were concerned, and still are concerned about security, but they need to move faster than they do.
One of the advantages that I think will come from them being involved with Silicon Valley companies … because there are a lot of talks going on, there are automakers who have outposts in Silicon Valley … is they’re going to learn to pick it up a little bit. I’ve heard some people talk about how they introduced to the automakers the idea of the … What is it? The MVP, the minimum viable product, which is scary as hell to an automaker, because they have to make sure it’s A, safe and B, will last ten years, fifteen years, whatever. If the automakers get around to making it so they can do another release, then they can probably be a little bit quicker about what they release now.
You don’t want to make your customers into your Beta testers; that’s not a good way to go, but it’s a different way of thinking that they have to get into, so I think that what they’ll end up at is something in somewhere in the middle of how quick Silicon Valley moves and how quick apps update, versus how slow they have been in an effort to make their cars safe and durable.
I can tell you just from experience that if you bought a car five years ago or ten years ago, and you got in it today, it would be exactly the same car functionally. In the past four or five years, as the in-dash systems have become more open, where you can add apps and there’s communication in and out, wirelessly, they have gotten slower over time. Just like a tablet or a smart phone, your in-dash controls get slower and it’s a drag, and I’ve had screens freeze up on me in several different models from different manufacturers.
Daily: I feel like that’s a real drag when you’re driving. If you’re stopped at a stop light, responsiveness is even more key than if you’re messing around with your phone before bed or something like that.
Wiesenfelder: Right, and it’s everything from wanting it to react immediately when you’re typing into a touch screen, to you’ll hit something or think you hit it, and then it doesn’t react so you hit it again, and next thing you know, it’s gone to the next page and you hit something you didn’t want to.
Daily: I’m going to pivot a little bit. One of the concerns from a greater perspective, beyond just the auto industry, is the attraction of talent to the industry and what effect that has on the greater region; to a degree, in Chicago and other areas, but definitely in metro Detroit. There’s a concern that if you’ve got all that brainpower going to Silicon Valley, what about developing those kind of ideas here? What do you think are some of the things that the Midwest could do to try to increase the innovation scale, increase the brains around here so that we can try to keep some of that work more in the area?
Wiesenfelder: There are really good universities here that specialize in a lot of automotive topics. There’s a new what’s called MCity, I believe, that the University of Michigan was set up. It’s like a small city/suburb testing grounds that are meant for autonomy, to put vehicles in different circumstances they might find themselves in, in the real world, supported by the university and a number of automakers, and this is where the automakers will be coming in – and the suppliers, for that matter – to test their vehicles and work on autonomy.
That’s the kind of thing that is going to get people here and get them interested, or at least keep people that might be from here, from going someplace like Silicon Valley, but it’s understandable why some of the automakers have opened these outposts in Silicon Valley. It’s just like Cadillac moved its headquarters from Detroit to New York City. It wasn’t strictly to have a different frame of mind, it was just because the new head of Cadillac believed that the people he wanted to work for what he considers a luxury company, not just a car company, would be more interested in or already live in New York City, so it’s definitely a challenge, but having such an emphasis on automotive topics and technology in Michigan and to a lesser extent in the Midwest, that probably helps.
When I first covered smart cars and this kind of autonomy stuff, it was 1993 and featured in Wired magazine. At that time, people were terrified of the idea of handing their car over to a computer, because computers weren’t as good as they are now
Daily: What do you see right around the corner? One or two things that are going to be big in 2016 in the auto industry?
Wiesenfelder: What’s going to be big in 2016 is talking about autonomy. What’s not going to be big is autonomy. What’s happening right now at this auto show is you can’t walk through a major automaker’s display without seeing some mention or hearing some mention of autonomy. It’s partly understandable, because what’s happened is Google and Tesla have gotten a lot of headlines for their work with autonomy, partly because Tesla was the company bold enough to just put it out there. It’s not full autonomy, but it’s as close as we’ve got.
The reality is that most of the major automakers have been working on this stuff for a long time, too, for years. The DARPA Defense Department challenges of six, eight, ten years ago, I believe, were all about autonomous driving, more in an off-road setting for the military purpose, but typically those were major automakers like GM and Volkswagen, in connection with technical universities, etc., so they’re doing it, and they also have a lot of the same semi-autonomous features in cars already, like lane departure prevention, forward collision avoidance and breaking, etc.
They’re doing a lot of hand raising right now, like, “Hey, don’t forget us, we’re doing this too,” but autonomy has a long way to go. There’s the safety issues, there are the liability issues. Who’s responsible if there is a collision when you “weren’t driving?”
The states now govern whether you’re even allowed to take your hand off the wheel when you’re in a car, so it’s got a really long way to go, but I do think it’s wise to pursue. I say that as someone who has a terrible commute in Chicago where Cars.com is headquartered, and I am a driving enthusiast, believe me, but not in all circumstances. I can tell you, from driving cars that have well-executed lane departure prevention and adaptive cruise control, where it maintains following distance with the car in front of you, all the way to a stop and then can pick up again, when I go through a commute in a car like that, I arrive less fatigued, absolutely I guarantee it.
That is a kind of situation I’m in where I go, hey, I wouldn’t mind having this as an option in my car that I can also drive manually. What’s great about having features like this in the car is it’s getting people warmed up to it in ways that … When I first covered smart cars and this kind of autonomy stuff, it was 1993 and featured in Wired magazine. At that time, people were terrified of the idea of handing their car over to a computer, because computers weren’t as good as they are now, but nowadays, they time out that lane departure prevention. If you take your hand off the wheel and leave it off for five to ten seconds, it will give you an alert and say take the wheel. It’s a safety feature, and I find myself saying wow, I wish this would just keep doing that. Now we’re in a situation where consumers are saying not only do I trust it, I want more of that, because I’ve experienced a little of it and I like it.
This is the United States of America. People like having their cars.
Daily: I’m thinking about Lyft, and I’m thinking about the recent investments around that such as what General Motors has made. Where do you think that plays into things? Moving from say individual ownership to the concept that automakers provide mobility. What do you think of that? Do you think that’s a real thing, like autonomy will be down the line, or do you think that’s one of those things we’re going to place a bet here, see what happens and then we’ll visit it again in five years and see what really happened?
Wiesenfelder: I think the automakers are placing some bets and trying to get in there just to see what happens. I don’t have any data on it, haven’t done any surveys or anything, but my impression is that ride sharing isn’t car sharing, and just because Uber and Lyft are here doesn’t mean that it’s that much better than taking a cab or public transportation. Yes, people like it better, there’s no question. That’s why these services are doing so well, but how big of an impact do they have, to make what percentage of consumers say, “You know what? I don’t need a car anymore, because now there’s Uber and there’s Lyft.” I’m not sure I see it.
This is the United States of America. People like having their cars. They have them all the time, even if they don’t drive them a lot. They’ll buy cars that are not well suited to their day to day life. They’ll drive a pickup truck all year with bad fuel economy because they go to Home Depot twice a year, or they’ll buy a minivan to go visit their grandkids once a year, and the rest of the time, you have a car that’s not really that functional or a good match for your life, so I’m pretty doubtful. I’m a little skeptical on that one, but I do understand why the larger manufacturers are trying to get in on the ground floor and see how they might be able to gain, or at least be set up for the next thing.