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.
Detroit is a show that’s more about the here and now
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.
Secretary of transportation Elaine Chao addresses the crowd on the first press day of the Detroit Auto Show.
A live jazz band opens the event where Mercedes-Benz showed off its new G-Class.
In a nod to the G Wagen’s ability to handle all types of weather, Mercedes-Benz shot flames, fake leaves, and fog around the new SUV.
Mercedes-Benz head Dieter Zetsche prepares to down a shot of schnapps with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who helped promote the new G-Class.
Schwarzenegger was mobbed by the press after Zetsche’s speech ended. The actor and former governor of California teased Zetsche about making the G-Class all-electric.
A rare, nearly-clean shot of the new G-Class during the rush to photograph it after the unveiling.
The new G-Class’ interior.
One of the changes made to the new G-Class is that the backup camera is supposedly no longer partially obstructed by the spare tire.
The company also encased an old G-Class in 40,000 liters of resin and placed it outside the Cobo convention center.
Infiniti executives pose for photos after revealing the Q Inspiration concept car. Photo by Sean O'Kane / The Verge
Photographers scramble to suck up available, valuable space in front of the new car.
Most concept cars these days eschew side mirrors for front and rear-facing cameras.
The Lexus LF-1 Limitless concept’s door handles pop out of the SUV’s smooth frame. See more photos here. The Lexus LF-1’s interior features a handful of triangular screens. See more photos here.
A TV news reporter waits to do a standup piece in front of the Mercedes-Benz booth.
An auto show attendee tries out Honda’s augmented reality demo, which uses Microsoft’s HoloLens.
A barista at one of the many coffee bars around the show floor takes in a face full of water vapor.
There are SO MANY interesting hinges in the many concept cars at these auto shows. This one comes from the newest concept car from Chinese automaker GAC. See more photos here. Seriously, these hinges! This one is off of the Infiniti Q Inspiration concept. See more photos here.
The new Mustang Bullitt next to the Mustang from Bullitt that Steve McQueen actually drove.
One of a few racecars scattered around the show, IndyCar showed off this — the totally redesigned car that drivers will compete in this year.
Meanwhile, Acura showed off the ARX-05 prototype racecar. This car was announced mid 2017 and signaled Acura’s return to prototype racing after years away from the sport.
Mercedes-Benz had one of the biggest displays at the auto show, and made one of the biggest announcements with the new G-Class. But it still stuck one of its all-electric EQ concepts front and center.
The EQ concept appropriately bathed in electric blue.
The EQA is Mercedes-Benz’s concept for an all-electric compact car. It also has an SUV concept called Generation EQ, and a different compact concept based on the Smart car brand’s design language.
The wavy tail lights of the EQA concept flicker and pulse.
The EQA is similar in style to the Generation EQ SUV concept. Unfortunately, the car wasn’t opened up at the show, meaning we couldn’t get a look at the interior.
Nearly every booth at the Detroit Auto Show has some kind of virtual or augmented reality demo.
Mercedes-Benz probably hopes the new G Wagen takes on as many different lives as past versions, like this 1983 Paris to Dakar rally winner.
This is the Roborace Robocar, a fully autonomous racecar created by YotaPhone designer Denis Sverdlov.
Most auto show booths have discreet or semi-discreet areas for meetings, schmoozy or otherwise.
Many of the concept cars on display at the auto show were cordoned off, like Volkswagen’s I.D. Crozz electric SUV.
The I.D. Crozz is one of three concepts Volkswagen has announced under the I.D. badging. There’s also the I.D. Buzz, which is a futuristic version of the Volkswagen Microbus, and the plainly named I.D. compact hatchback.
The I.D. Crozz resembles a Tesla Model X from many angles. It will be the first of the I.D. cars to go into production, according to Volkswagen.
The I.D. Crozz’s rear badge glows in an effort to remind you that it’s electric.
Members of the press poke and prod at the new Volkswagen Jetta.
Headlight design on the Nissan Xmotion concept. Photo by Sean O'Kane / The Verge
Infiniti brought its Prototype 9 concept car to the show. It calls on the look of some of the earliest racecars, while boasting an all-electric drivetrain borrowed from the new Nissan Leaf.
The cockpit of the Infiniti Prototype 9 is deliciously old scool, with analog gauges, a wood steering wheel, and a small windscreen.
The back end of the Infiniti Prototype 9, which I would like to drive very much.
Paul Hollinsky of the Oakland University Formula SAE team sits in his club’s racecar. Automotive projects from a number of different colleges and universities are on display in the Automobili-D section downstairs at the show.
The back end of the Oakland University Formula SAE team’s racecar. Students compete a few times a year, but they’re also judged on things like budget spend and safety.
Details on the Wayne State University Formula SAE racecar.
News teams pounce on the empty show floor just before it closes at the end of each day.
Ford’s always-stunning GT occupies a space in the back of the company’s massive booth.
Not to be outdone by anyone, Ford has a VR-style experience at its booth where you put a giant racing helmet over your head.
This year’s show was dominated by news about trucks, and Ford’s F150s were one of the main attractions at its booth.
The new mid-size Ranger pickup also has prominent placement, smack in the middle of Ford’s setup.
GMC shows off a Sierra with snow treads.
Fiat Chrysler also decorated its booth with trucks and SUVs. The Ram and the Cherokee both got updates this year.
A worker plans out some of the mid-show changes to the FCA booth.
The recently announced Jeep Wrangler update had a front-row spot at the FCA booth.
The new Jeep Wrangler’s front windshield folds down, but the A pillar remains.
An industry rep takes a spin in a Forza Motorsport simulator at the Hyundai booth.
Hyundai shows off a very loud Veloster from the upcoming Ant-Man movie.
Not to be outdone, Lexus showed off an almost entirely blue version of the LC 500, which it designed in honor of a specific hue the company supposedly took 15 years to develop. Thanks?
Photography by Sean O’Kane / The Verge