Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

A "Technical" Look at the 2015 North American International Auto Show

February 3, 2015 Think THF

Honda’s CR-V occupant detection system makes adjustments that are appropriate for each passenger when it deploys safety features like airbags.

How does a curator of communication and information technology who doesn’t drive experience her first North American International Auto Show? First, I took advantage of the convenient shuttle bus running into downtown Detroit from Dearborn. And when I arrived for press day at Cobo Hall, catching up with my colleagues after weaving through the maze of exhibits and crowds, they said I arrived looking a little… shell-shocked. My apparently palpable sense of wonder wasn’t directed towards the cars or the crowds, however—I was in awe with the technological cocoons in which they were displayed, and the surreal screen-world that I had stepped into.

Enormous and pristinely crisp LCD screens provided backdrops for automobiles. Touchscreen kiosks were everywhere. Each company seemed to be offering its own branded wireless hotspot. The usual standby of the printed brochure with specs had been replaced by download hubs for smartphone apps and kiosks to email yourself information from. The crowds of press were using cameras to share content through traditional broadcast and social media sites alike. Also, drones were buzzing around overhead at the Ford exhibit, tracking and delivering small models of the Raptor pickup truck to attendees who texted a special code. As the day went on, I kept thinking: what would a guest from 1907 (the year the Detroit Auto Show was founded) think of this spectacle?

Generation Z under the spotlight at Ford’s 2015 Trends talk.

Comfortably settling into the orchestrated chaos of NAIAS, I caught the 2015 Trends talk by Ford’s own resident futurist, Sheryl Connelly. Largely forecasting the next generation of young car owners, Generation Z, Connelly provided surprising statistics about the concept of failure among this demographic. It seems as though this generation understands the importance of failure as an innovative behavior—the same principles that Thomas Edison lived and worked by. When it comes to technology and start-up businesses, Generation Z is not afraid to fail, learn, and try again.

I was amused to walk by to see onlookers using several types of technology to capture their interactions with the friendly robotic assistant staffing the Volkswagen booth. Like a mashup of a Segway, iPad, and GoPro camera, this technology approached guests and provided more information about vehicles, told jokes, and danced on request.

As our Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson mentioned in his recap of NAIAS, the sense of optimism at this year’s NAIAS was undeniable—a feeling that extended to the once-futuristic, but now-realistic platform of the connected car. As I toured the exhibits, it was obvious that the connected car is not only a reality, but an expectation of consumers that manufacturers can no longer ignore.

The lifecycles of technology, as we know, move at a rapid pace—updates for applications and systems operation on the typical smartphone occur several times a month—and this is something that is at odds with the slightly lengthier development process of an automobile. The necessity of collaborations between auto manufacturers and telecommunication providers are beginning to emerge as a result, as companies like General Motors pair up with AT&T and are now dipping their toes (or wheels) into the test-waters of a new type of partnership.

An impressive potential for connectivity using familiar applications in the MINI booth.

The MINI exhibit was likely the most explicit in its outreach to interconnected generations with its “Mini Connected” models on view. Integrated streaming and satellite radio services aside (with several new standards like Spotify and Amazon Music), this car is also outfitted with high definition GoPro cameras. These cameras allow videos and photos to be automatically uploaded to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. If younger generations live with and through screens; the MINI Connected provides the tools to capture everyday life, the romance of the roadtrip—and perhaps occasionally footage never meant to be shared with the world.

Local Motors has applied large-scale 3D printing technology towards car manufacturing. The company anticipates the first prototypes to be road and safety approved within 18 months.

Local Motors provided an unexpected alternative with their display of one of the first 3D printed cars. While staring, mesmerized, at the enormous 3D printer building the body of a car layer by layer in front of me, a spokesperson approached me. Noting my name badge and workplace, she excitedly asked if I would like to take the complete 3D printed car downstairs for a spin on the test track. And this, unfortunately, is where my lack of a license backfired. Politely, I had to decline. But as of this week, with two hours logged on my brand new learner’s permit, I’m well on my way to becoming a correspondent with a license for next year’s NAIAS.

Kristen Gallerneaux is the Curator of Communication and Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

 

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