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Can The Auto Industry Win The Future If It Looks Like 1974?

So my week at the is wrapping up. It's my fourth Detroit Auto Show. And boy has it come a long way.

There is a vibrancy and spirit this year that's different than other shows. There's also been a lot more money spent. The tenor of the show is very different than when the federal government had an ownership stake in Chrysler and General Motors.

With the fate of the auto industry not in imminent danger, that leads a reporter like myself to notice oddities that aren't evident in crisis. From the press room, the lack of diversity is conspicuous. The few women and journalists of color stick out. When you walk in to Cobo Hall, the site of the show, executives of color are present but not in great numbers either.

Juxtapose that with the bevy of female models standing seductively by the latest race cars. (Though I've noticed what seems to be an increase in the number of male models, with a good number of them being twinks. *) That said, there's something distinctly Mad Men about the auto show even in this era of a "renewed" auto industry.

The Mad Men theme played most loudly at the arrival of Mary Barra, the freshly minted CEO of GM. A woman who worked her way up from intern to CEO is most definitely a modern story. The reaction to Barra by attendees was definitely not.

GM had previously not made Barra available for an extended period. But when GM won "Car and Truck of the Year," Barra made her debut as CEO to pick up the award. As she exited the auditorium, a press scrum developed, the likes of which I've not seen in many years. There in the middle, walking intently, was a petite woman surrounded almost entirely by men — myself included. At least two photographers fell over backwards trying to snap photos.

It was hard to remember that at the center of the scrum was the most powerful person in the U.S. auto industry and not a Hollywood starlet exiting rehab.

Another retro note was this year's focus on performance. Horsepower was definitely back at this auto show. There was no real eye-popping technology that was debuted this year — no flux capacitors, and certainly no flying cars. In many way the Consumer Electronics Show, put on a few days earlier, seemed to have stolen a lot of the thunder.

When the government had a role in the industry, the companies were at pains to slap a green coat of paint on their displays and talk fuel savings. This year, not so much.

Part of that has to do with how integral green tech has become for so many car makers. Ford has a new alumimum body truck. It's probably the biggest technological step forward but it's not as sexy as, say, an electric car. With all the talk of horsepower and performance, what seemed to be missing was bold thinking about the distant future, which is what used to make car shows sparkle. Even as the car business has gotten more healthy, it's still playing to the desires of a teenager in Michigan ... in 1974.

Transportation is one of the most fundamental problems that needs solving in our society. In order to get there, the automobile has to go through as radical a transformation as the telephone has in the past decade. And to do that it's got to attract the best and brightest young thinkers. But the auto industry is struggling to get more talented young people in its ranks.

I mean, if you're an intelligent programmer or designer, why would you go to Detroit when you could take up residence in Silicon Valley? You have to wonder, if the car business weren't so old school, whether it'd be able to attract more new talent to it. And if, instead of government or society having to solve the industry's problems, the industry could again begin solving some of ours.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.