According to Prof Karel Williams of the Manchester Business School: “The car as we know it may be on the edge of becoming history, the way that [photographic company] Kodak became history.”
According to Williams, the industry has seen nothing like this since Henry Ford’s Model T rolled off the production line in 1908. “In that [following] period, the US industry defined the idea of the people’s car – an internal combustion engine with a gearbox and so on,” he said.
“What happened after world war two was that the Europeans and Japanese downsized the model. But European cars like the VW Beetle, the Fiat 500, the Mini, would all have been recognised by Henry Ford. The real big thing is that the car, as Ford and General Motors invented it, is going to be reinvented with electrification and autonomy.”
As if to underscore this tectonic shift, major European brands including Audi, JLR, Mercedes-Benz and Mini have all dropped out of the Detroit show this year, turning their noses up at the city that gave birth to the industry.
From next year, the show will move to summer, perhaps mindful that the gala unveiling of shiny new models inside cavernous buildings protecting delegates from the Michigan cold is losing its lustre.
But the seasonal switch is unlikely to be enough to restore Detroit’s former glory, particularly with Silicon Valley becoming just as important to the industry’s future direction.
“It’s not at all clear that manufacturers whose expertise is in petrol and diesel vehicles are well placed to benefit from electric and autonomous vehicles,” said Williams. “The likely beneficiaries are the data companies, like Google, or mobility providers like Uber.”