Electrics Trickle Charge The LA Auto Show, Robotaxis Absent

Angelinos and auto enthusiasts expecting an all-electric boost were served with lots of the same. Press coverage focused on the electrics, but much of the new sheetmetal being showcased was propelled by hydrocarbons. Most makes showcased expanded and more capable plug-in hybrid alternatives in their existing lineups.

The Mustang MachE wasn’t the only pony running on electrons. In fact, most electrified offerings took the guise of higher-margin SUVs. Audi’s E-Tron, Jaguar I-PACE, and the Mercedes EQC occupy the wish-lists of well-heeled carbon-conscious buyers. Honda presented its first hybrid crossover, the CR-V, boasting 50% more fuel economy than it’s conventional hybrid. Toyota meanwhile showcased a plug-in flavor of its RAV4 crossover, with sports-car shaming 5.8-second 0-60 time and 39 miles of all-electric range. Audi also showcased its E-Tron SUV. Kia dedicated a separate alongside premium brands in South Hall to showcase its Niro EV alongside its faithful hybrid offerings. Save the station-wagon-styled VW ID Space Vizzion, and Tesla-crushing Porsche Taycan, every other new mainstream EV offering took on the form-factor of a crossover.

Does this mean enthusiasts should hang up their driving gloves? Of course not. Most of the electric “cute-utes” post track times that put supercars of the Baywatch-era to shame. Furthermore, the LA-Auto-Show-absent Rimac, founded by Forbes 30-under-30 awardee Mate Rimac, has proven that electrons can release the adrenaline (and embolden us) as effectively as hydrocarbons when properly put to use. A few hybrid hypercar examples, such as BMW’s i8, and Acura NSX, showcased the benefit of massive electric torque with the lungs of a traditional internal combustion engine. Best of both worlds.

The elephant in the convention center was ride-sharing, and the inevitable future of full autonomy. Most brands offered adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection, and lane-keeping as options in high-end models. Tesla-style Level 2 “Autopilot” has been available across the board from brands ranging from Acura to Volvo. Part-time full-autonomy, or Level 3 autonomy, was scarce. My prediction: Level 3 will never make it to the mainstream, and Level 4 robotaxis will take us by surprise.

We were promised the back seat of autonomous regular trips. What we have is Waymo offering limited geofenced rides in beta, some without a safety driver. The delayed debut of the promised robotaxis has given traditional automakers an opportunity to architect their future consisting of two likely businesses: One is the existing legacy retail automotive business, whose growth is likely to slow down. Second is as a supplier into the nascent autonomous ride-sharing business. Most major brands have partnered with technology companies, such as Hyundai with Aptiv and Aurora, BMW with Intel/Mobileye now joined by Daimler, Toyota with China’s Pony.ai, GM and Honda with Cruise, FCA with Aurora and Waymo, Renault/Nissan with Waymo as well, and VW parted ways with Aurora to saddle up with Ford/Argo. There was no evidence of this complex web of relationships on the show floor. Perhaps because the automakers do not want to conflate their slowing retail business with their emerging autonomous services, which will likely make their flashy debuts to the public through other venues, such as the Consumer Electronics Show, or start with VIP transport at non-automotive high-coverage events such as the Cannes Film Festival.

The LA Auto Show, and many exhibits like it, will likely continue to focus on wooing consumers to choose them for their next commuter car purchase. Perhaps most telling was a noticeable trend of scaling back the halo brands and emphasizing the mainstream: Maserati joined Lamborghini in a complete withdrawal from the LA Auto Show. Premium brands such as Alfa Romeo, BMW, Porsche and Mercedes seemed to be spending less on the show. Rumors were floating around that the premium automakers are directing more dollars to snazzier events like the Concours d’Elegance. Expect a future of more mainstream models in more humble displays.

Meanwhile, what will become of the iconic brands we love? Will it it comes down to pennies per mile and seconds of wait-time for pickups? I expect a bright future for all of them, so long as they leverage their heritage, and choose the right autonomous technology partner, to deliver tomorrow’s magical rides.

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