Sep 15, 2022 - Technology

What the Detroit auto show reveals about the future of mobility

An electric aircraft on display at the Detroit auto show.
An electric aircraft on display at the Detroit auto show. Photo: Joann Muller

A new era of electric air mobility is on display at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where flying vehicles nearly outnumber the terrestrial models making their public debut.

  • Some examples: A virtual reality simulator that lets visitors soar above the city in a two-seat "sports car in the sky," and also in a Star Wars-inspired hoverbike.
  • Meanwhile, traditional carmakers are using huge chunks of their display space for ride-and-drive experiences to showcase their electric vehicles' performance.

Why it matters: The future of transportation is electric, autonomous and — potentially — airborne.

  • Even though Detroit's first post-pandemic auto show is modest by historical standards, the futuristic aircraft and EV test tracks provide some fresh sizzle to inspire the public's imagination about personal mobility in the coming decade.

Driving the news: President Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the show Wednesday, taking a victory lap for the economic policies that have sparked a U.S. EV manufacturing boom.

  • Biden also announced that the administration has approved funding for 35 states, including Michigan, to begin building electric charging stations along major highways.
  • Biden and Buttigieg, touring separately, hopped in and out of some of the newest EVs from Chevrolet, Ford and Jeep, and met with company CEOs and union leaders.
  • "The vehicles here give me so many reasons to be optimistic about the future," Biden said later on.
  • "I think seeing is believing," Buttigieg told Axios, describing the adrenaline rush he felt riding shotgun in a plug-in hybrid Jeep on a simulated off-road course.

The big picture: Auto shows are facing an existential crisis, Axios' Nathan Bomey notes, as companies gravitate toward social media stunts and one-off events to generate buzz for their new rides.

  • Wednesday's splashiest introduction was the reveal of a seventh-generation Ford Mustang, a PR extravaganza that included a "stampede" of 1,000 Mustang owners flooding the streets of downtown Detroit.
  • Other carmakers are showcasing vehicles they've already introduced, or new derivatives of existing models.
  • Stellantis, for example, is giving rides in two new plug-in hybrid Jeeps, while GM is highlighting its entire EV portfolio — which includes the Chevrolet Bolt EUV, Blazer and Equinox SUVs, and the Silverado pickup.

What's next: The "flying cars" are the most curious concept vehicles on display. A half-dozen startups are showcasing their future flying machines at this year's show.

  • They include everything from electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft for air taxis or personal use, to amphibious sport planes, hoverboards and jet suits.
  • "It's eye-catching, isn't it?" Buttigieg told Axios. "You walk by a car and then you walk by something that looks like a giant drone. Is it a flying car? What is that?"
  • eVTOLs are "a little far out at the moment, but they might not be by the end of the decade," he added.

The bottom line: Air mobility companies are learning what auto manufacturers already know: Give the public a taste of the future, and they could turn into future buyers.

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