It can take several years for cars to make it from concept to market; Detroit’s annual North American International Auto Show is a great preview of technology trends that will hit showrooms over the next several seasons. Among the trends: increased connectivity, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, and battery power.
While a recent drop in gas prices is pleasing at the pump, auto companies are going on record as “staying the course” in regards to alternative-energy vehicles. It’s not responsible environmentalism motivating manufacturers so much as responsible business; if a glut of car buyers are racing for bigger, less efficient vehicles right now, it won’t be long before the pendulum swings on oil prices and hybrid and battery-powered vehicles will be back in vogue.
“Plug-in hybrids especially, and battery electrics will only become more important,” says Wayne Killen, general manager of Audi Product Strategy and Watch.
Tesla is still a clear leader in battery-power, even if its cars have so far been the playthings of well-heeled buyers. Tesla founder Elon Musk was typically confident at the auto show, announcing plans for a much lower-cost Model 3 EV in 2017.
Musk has made his feelings well-known regarding the traditional auto-market, often taking manufacturers to task for not fully embracing battery technology. So far, his assessment is accurate; manufacturers seem to be easing into the market slowly, using hybrid technology to maintain range and address the lack of charging stations.
But the new Chevy’s Bolt, also due out in 2017, may give Tesla a run for its money. The fully electric model promises a 200-mile range per charge and an attractive base price of $30,000.
Also, at the auto show, BMW showed off its new i8 model, a luxury-minded successor to its more budget-conscious i3 hybrid. Sporting sleek lines and a six-figure price tag, the i8 is more about looks than true battery power—it only gets 22 miles of range on the battery before having to rely on fossil fuels. But packed with sophisticated engineering, it will serve as a way to draw new buyers to the hybrid market.
As the Bolt, Model 3 and others get closer to market, expect auto shows to feature a bullish hybrid and electric offering. This trend should only accelerate as battery life and power improve, and as gas prices will no doubt make a sad retreat from their current levels.