Weekly Brief: Another Year, Another Challenge for the Auto Industry

Iconic actress and comedian Betty White died on New Year’s Eve at the age of 99, two weeks shy of her 100th birthday.

White was a television pioneer and trailblazer for women’s rights whose eight-decade career earned her a reputation as American as apple pie and muscle cars. It happens that White had a deep affection for automobiles – specifically classic Cadillacs, which she owned in a range of bright colors. Two of her favorites were a yellow Cadillac named Canary and a sea-mist green Cadillac Seville that she called Parakeet. I was at a New Year’s Eve party when I learned the news from my wife. “Thank goodness this happened in 2021,” she said. “Otherwise, we’d already be convinced that 2022 is doomed.”

We lit a bonfire; sparks danced high into the night. We went around and made wishes for the new year. I hoped for a return to normal, whatever that might mean. No more school closures, I suppose, no more long-COVID for my wife, a proper family vacation, a semblance of old times when we could gather indoors without fear of kickstarting a super-spreader event.

The next morning I woke to a news alert on my phone. More than 2,500 flights in the US had been canceled owing to COVID staff shortages. Another ping: CES 2022 was on the verge of becoming an entirely remote event given the rapid rise of the Omicron variant. In the hopes of salvaging an in-person component to the show, organizers had shortened CES 2022 from a four-day to a three-day event, running from January 5-7.

That didn’t stop the exodus. In spite of safety precautions like mask and vaccine mandates, a host of big name presenters proceeded to pull out. General Motors is gone. Mary Barra will skip her in-person keynote for a virtual talk. Mercedes-Benz dropped out. So too did BMW and Waymo. A bevy of tech companies followed suit: Amazon, Google, TikTok, Twitter, Microsoft, Meta (formerly Facebook), Lenovo, Intel, T-Mobile, AT&T, Panasonic, IBM, Pinterest. The cancellation list goes on and on.

CES has become the most important auto show in the world in recent years as the auto industry embraces transformative technologies and as cutting-edge concepts like self-driving cars and flying taxis catch creep closer to reality. More than a third of presenters with stalls in the exhibition hall this year are auto related, many of them focused on the burgeoning fields of LiDAR and electric vehicles. Losing the in-person component of the tradeshow can have real consequences for their prospects and industry growth more broadly. Start-ups often use CES as a business development summit that can help speed growth and fuel new partnerships. Last year’s CES was an entirely virtual event and felt like a ghost husk of its normal self.

Hopefully, organizers can still pull off a successful event without it turning into a pandemic cautionary tale. One of the highlights of Day 1 should be GM introducing its new all-electric pickup truck, the Chevrolet Silverado EV. Barra is expected to discuss GM’s emphasis on electrification in her virtual keynote, as well as vertical take-off and landing drone concepts. We’ll see if she mentions Cruise, whose CEO she fired just before Christmas. If all goes well, Cruise is set to deploy a robo-taxi service in San Francisco this year. Waymo, which announced a big partnership with Chinese automaker Geely last week, is also on the brink of launching a robo-taxi service in San Francisco this year.

Pandemic aside, 2022 could be a banner year for transformative automotive technologies. Or it could be another year of shutdowns, supply chain delays, social distancing, mass illness and never-ending Zoom calls. Most likely it will be a bit of both. I look forward to following the news with you. Here’s hoping for as much health and happiness as possible.

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