The Detroit Auto Show is now open to the public, allowing thousands of visitors to see the latest and greatest from companies like Ford (F) , General Motors (GM) , Fiat (FCAU) and others as they head into the new year.
We were lucky enough to access Detroit's North American International Auto Show a week early, allowing us to spend some time with industry leaders and executives to get their take on the direction of the auto market. Specifically, we were able to sit down with Dietmar Exler, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA.
SUVs Will Remain Hot
In 2017, sedan sales lagged and trucks crept higher, while SUV sales carried the load. We spoke with Jeep, Bentley and others saying they all expect demand for SUVs to continue this year. Exler was no exception. "Generally speaking," it should continue, he said.
Exler pointed out that when a model is typically in its last year, demand tends to wane. For the GLE and GLS, though, that's not the case, with demand for the Mercedes SUVs ticking higher. Then, of course, Mercedes-Benz had its all-new G-Class out on full display. Pictures are worth a thousands words, so:
It's also worth pointing out that, according to the data, luxury SUV sales growth remains robust, outperforming most of the SUV segment. This can be seen in different ways, too.
It's no wonder that Tesla's (TSLA) next electric vehicle following the Model S was an SUV unit with the Model X. Additionally, Ford announced the Edge ST at this year's Auto Show, adding more performance to the SUV. In essence, the SUV was attractive from a practicality stand point. Now it's becoming more fun to drive and getting better fuel economy.
Hybrid and Plug-In Trends to Continue
Before we met with Exler, we spoke to Mark Del Rosso, the CEO of Bentley. The automaker is releasing its Bentayga SUV with a hybrid option this year and says the fleet will continue in this direction going forward.
This trend was instantly validated when visiting the Mercedes-Benz booth at the Detroit Auto Show. Featuring three plug-in vehicles as well as an electric concept car, it was clear Mercedes wouldn't be rejecting the trend in electrification.
The company will keep going in that direction, Exler added. Not that consumers won't be able to purchase a standard internal combustion engine, but in the future they can expect more Mercedes models to offer hybrid or all-electric options as well.
Exler also told us about an app that is available in Europe that will help drivers determine whether a hybrid or electric vehicle is a good fit for them. Essentially, users who have the app will be able to drive around for a few weeks or a few months and the app will tell them whether their driving scenarios -- distance, temperate, characteristics, etc. -- are fit for a hybrid or electric option.
Pretty snazzy if you ask us.
Of Course, Artificial Intelligence
Exler had some eyebrow-raising scenarios when it came to artificial intelligence and the automobile. But in general, he made it clear that this is the new direction for the auto industry.
Through its Mercedes-Benz User Experience platform, the automaker has now brought AI into the cabin of the car. The new platform -- powered by Nvidia's (NVDA) Drive IX -- will launch in February in the A-Class.
"Voice control is just the way to go," Exler explained. The simple fact is, drivers get distracted. This helps alleviate some of that distraction and not only makes it more convenient, but makes driving safer, too.
"They've done a fantastic job," he said of the end product, but he really wants to hear what the customers have to say after it goes live.
What originally started as safety driver assist features -- lane assist, blind spot monitoring, automatic braking, all of which Mercedes does very, very well -- has quickly morphed into fully autonomous driving features. While there are some obstacles that remain, technology-based solutions will pop to address these issues.
United States Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao had a very encouraging keynote at the North American International Auto Show. Chao is aware of the issues that self-driving cars can bring, but also the opportunity that comes with the technology as well.
"We will get federal legislation, so we'll have the same standards across all the states," Exler said. That's huge, given the wide-ranging legislative results we'd likely see from 50 individual rulings.
"I like her a lot," Exler said of Chao, "she's very, very smart."
More from the Detroit Auto Show on TheStreet: