We used to call them the Big Three because, well, they were the three biggest automakers in the world. For much of the 20th century, GM, Ford, and Chrysler each made more cars—and more money—than anyone else in the auto biz. They made Detroit the automotive capital of the world by the 1920s and one of the wealthiest cities in America by the 1950s. Back then, the masters of the universe cruised Woodward Avenue, not Wall Street.
A lot has changed.
For a start, the Big Three aren’t so big anymore. According to global sales figures from industry analyst JATO, GM now languishes in fourth spot, behind Volkswagen, Toyota, and Hyundai, fifth if you factor in the new Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance. Ford, for decades the world’s No. 2 automaker, is now merely the sixth largest. And 20 years after being swallowed by Daimler—and subsequently spat out before being merged with Fiat in 2014—Chrysler barely makes the top 10.
But that’s not all. Just two years after Toyota ended GM’s eight-decade reign as the world’s largest automaker in 2008, China became the world’s biggest single auto market, toppling the United States from the leadership position it had held for more than a century. The Chinese market has since grown to be 60 percent larger than America’s, with Chinese consumers buying more than 28 million vehicles last year.
A new world order is here. So what now for America’s automakers? The 2018 Geneva show addressed that question.
Jaguar beat its German rivals to the punch at Geneva with the launch of the I-Pace (pictured above), the first car to challenge Tesla’s hegemony in the premium electric vehicle segment. But Porsche, Audi, Mercedes, and BMW were all talking in detail about the swarm of BEVs they’ll have on the road starting in 2019. Brands as diverse as Nissan and Aston Martin showed BEV concepts touting Level 4 autonomous capability and foldaway steering wheels; the VW I.D. Vizzion concept (pictured below), built on VW Group’s all-new MEB electric vehicle platform that enters production next year, had no steering wheel at all.
Geneva 2018 was one of those rare auto shows—Tokyo 1989 was another—where the future felt real. Yet … there was not a single GM car on display, the Ford stand was a perfunctory affair highlighting the retro-hip Mustang Bullitt, and FCA’s star turn was the Jeep Wrangler, a vehicle whose roots go back to the 1940s. America, the nation that put the world on wheels, that shaped the 20th century, seemed curiously AWOL from the existential narrative reimagining the 21st at Geneva.
GM’s absence from Geneva reflected the company’s pivot away from Europe to China, the nation that’s now dictating the types of vehicles the world’s automakers must build. We may love our pickup trucks and V-8s, but China is demanding BEVs and autonomous capability, and when automakers contemplate a market that could be twice the size of America’s within the next decade, they’re going to follow the money.
In that context, GM appears to be well positioned. GM global product chief Mark Reuss has confirmed two BEV crossovers based on the Chevy Bolt platform will appear in the next 18 months. At least a further seven BEVs—and possibly as many as 18—will be built on a new modular vehicle architecture and carry a 300-mile range as soon as 2023. And as we’ve seen with Cadillac’s Super Cruise, GM is aggressively pursuing autonomous capability.
The jury is out on Ford and FCA, though. Ford has confirmed just one BEV by 2020, an all-wheel-drive SUV it claims will have a 300-mile range, and FCA’s Sergio Marchionne says a production version of the Chrysler Portal BEV minivan concept will go into production some time after 2018. Both companies are also working on autonomous drive: Ford is testing a fleet of self-driving Fusions as a prelude to launching a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021, and FCA is partnering with BMW and Intel to develop an autonomous vehicle platform.
But is it too little, too late? The electric realities of Geneva suggest it might be.