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Is Los Angeles ready to rethink the car?

The two faces of the LA Auto Show

L.A. Auto Show Showcases Latest Car Models Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

When people say Americans won’t give up their cars, Los Angeles is a case study on automotive saturation. Car fever took off during the post-World War II era economic boom, and the sprawling city’s far reaching tentacle of freeways make the automobile essential. Culver City speed shops and custom car culture elevated the LA’s romance with the automobile to another level. But a new reality has set in, and so far, no one is exactly sure how to stop it.

Los Angeles may be a car town, but there’s nothing more brutal than an LA traffic jam and its massive environmental footprint. The state of California has embraced some of the cleanest emissions standards in the country, and is most identifiable as the home of the new electric car business, thanks to Tesla and Google. But when it comes to automotive innovation, LA proper has some catching up to do with what’s happening north in Silicon Valley.

This central theme of recalibration resonates at the LA Auto Show this year, which runs through November 27th. The show has gradually evolved as the place to introduce carefree convertibles into an event to think ahead about mobility, an idea that’s much bigger than the state of California. Last year, organizers introduced a Connected Car Expo prior to the show. This year it merged automation and autos into a full week of preview days in an effort to keep up with both the upcoming Consumer Electronic Show and the North American International Auto Show in January.

There are plenty of cars to see — including 50 vehicles debuts. Still, as the public visits the show this week, the biggest issue at the LA Auto Show seems to be one of timing. During the previews, conversations inevitably touched on the uncertain policies of a President-elect Trump administration, and how it could alter plans to introduce cars with cleaner emissions.

Tamara Warren

But the show has to go on. Automobility was staged under tents in front of the convention center in the downtown district. Picture a baby Consumer Electronics Show, as startups, software companies, and panelists turned their eyes toward the future of the car. Intel declared its intention to launch a $250 million autonomous car program. Argus Cyber Security highlighted its software to prevent hacking. Automakers joined in as well. BMW said it would expand its car-sharing service ReachNow to Brooklyn and Ford CEO Mark Fields spoke on Ford’s automated future. Hyundai announced its partnership with Amazon Echo. A series of panels covered big-picture topics. Inventor Dezsö Molnár described the the flying car race he is planning for next year in Nevada. Some of California’s newest luxury electric car companies had a presence. The NextEV CEO broke down her vision that cars should tackle both software and hardware and Lucid Motors showed off its electric sports car prototype.

Several of the traditional car companies unveiled cars with more progressive electrified developments. Jaguar unveiled its fierce electric crossover offering — the iType — and Hyundai showed the Ionic, its self-driving car concept. Volkswagen unveiled a refreshed e-Gulf, as it attempts to mend its image after its shameful diesel scandal. Chrysler showed the plug-in hybrid Pacifica, a strong play for eco-friendly families.

The ballooning crossover category added several new or modified entries. Ford showed its EcoSport at a preview (promoted by DJ Khaled on the decks.) Fiat Chrysler has expanded its menu in its svelte Alfa Romeo lineup in the chic Stelvio. Mazda showed a new version of the practical CX-5 crossover.

But LA is still a town that caters to celebrity culture, and places a high value on status and speed. Mercedes-Benz revealed the stately Maybach convertible at a preview event. Aston Martin showed a more vivacious Vanquish S. Racing was on full view at the Porsche stand, where the 911RS debuted and Mazda racecar drivers posed with the RT24-P racecar. Honda revealed a more peppy Civic Si. The local dealer Galpin showed several choice customs and featured the Spyker C8 Preliator, first unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show.

Despite all the hype and enthusiasm show organizers pumped up, the mood was anxious and subdued throughout the week of previews. There was never a moment that was truly exciting, or a car that totally dominated the conversation. The trepidation had more to do with the surrounding world than the bubble of cars on display in a convention center. In a car town, a visit to the Los Angeles Auto Show is an opportunity to see an industry caught in a crossroads.