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Car Companies Show Off New Tech At Detroit Auto Show


Last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas flows seamlessly into this week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Car companies were a big force last week in Vegas, and digital technology for cars is the major buzz at this week's auto show. It all makes fertile ground for this week's All Tech Considered.


SHAPIRO: Car companies are pouring some of their record profits from the last year into reinventing themselves for the future. One of the most important things they're spending money on is robot technology and artificial intelligence. NPR's Sonari Glinton joins us from the auto show in Detroit. Hey, Sonari.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Hey, Ari. It's kind of like my Super Bowl here.


SHAPIRO: Well, let's start with the big picture. It sounds like Silicon Valley and Detroit are kind of moving towards the same place - tech companies exploring the auto business, car companies moving more towards technology. Is that what's going on?

GLINTON: Yeah, essentially that is. If you talk to one of the CEOs, they all will actually say things like we don't want to be disrupted. We don't want to have what has happened to, say, taxi cabs happen to us. And if you think about it, six years ago, the industry was almost disrupted. Actually, it was almost, you know, killed. And so there's this idea here that they have the expertise, and they want to make sure that they have a future not just, you know, after the next recession but in 10 or 20 years. And they have the money to invest right now.

SHAPIRO: This actually ties in with something that the CEO of Ford, Mark Fields, told me when I spoke with him on this program last month. Let's play a little of that conversation. He said that he now considers Ford to be an auto manufacturer, a technology company and also something more.


MARK FIELDS: As our vehicles get modems in them and customers are connected to the Internet - when they allow us to share and look at their data, it will allow us also to be an information company. The successful companies are not only going to be the ones that provide the best product but also the ones that collect the best data and then combine those to turn them into digital services including mobility services going forward for consumers.

SHAPIRO: As you talk about collecting data on people who use these very technologically advanced vehicles, what sorts of information are you looking for about drivers and passengers?

FIELDS: We want to be viewed as a trusted steward of that data first and foremost. So clearly, the customer will elect whether they want to share that data with us. And what we're really looking for is patterns and trends. Whether it's giving them coaching on how to be better drivers, getting better fuel economy, whether it's traffic and real-time updates, we think there's a lot of opportunity taking a look at the data and using that to make their lives easier.

SHAPIRO: So that was the CEO of Ford, Mark Fields, speaking with me last month saying the future is not just selling vehicles. It is selling transportation-related services. NPR's Sonari Glinton is still with us from the auto show in Detroit, and Sonari, Ford had an announcement along those lines today. This thing called FordPass. Explain what it is.

GLINTON: Yeah. FordPass is - for those of you who know what GM cars are, it's kind of like OnStar. So it will help you find a restaurant or a parking space, that sort of thing. Now, Mark Fields - when he says he wants to be a mobility company, he wants this to be - do for mobility what iTunes did for music fans. Well, when you think about it, it's kind of funny because when was the last time you used iTunes to get your music? But it is a step forward for people here in Detroit, you know? And it's a bridge towards self-driving cars and autonomy. All of these features that are around getting around and making things easier are a part of what helps to make us, you know - get us to that point where the cars are just driving themselves.

SHAPIRO: And will those self-driving cars of the future, do you think, come from Silicon Valley or from Detroit?

GLINTON: Well, it'll come from both because here in Detroit they have more than 100 years of expertise in building, you know, automobiles, and they understand the regulations and the difficulty. But in Silicon Valley, where you realize that a car has millions of lines of code, they have the expertise in the code. So I don't see a world in which these two cities, these two industries don't work very closely hand-in-hand because we won't get an autonomous car by just one carmaker saying, hey, we're going to do it.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Sonari Glinton at the auto show in Detroit. Thanks, Sonari.

GLINTON: Always a pleasure, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.