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For 2014, Detroit Steps Up Its Game With Lighter, Smaller Autos


Now we're going to look ahead at emerging trends in the auto industry and what kinds of cars we'll be seeing in 2014. I'm joined by Dan Neil. He's automotive columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Dan, welcome back to the program.

DAN NEIL: Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: And we just heard U.S. automakers have managed to turn it around. I'm curious to hear whether there's one new car coming out that you think really captures that turnaround.

NEIL: Well, it's not a car. It's a truck, the Ford F150 truck, and it's actually not going to be at the Detroit auto show in full glory because it's been delayed a little bit. They're making it out of aluminum and they're having trouble with the aluminum tooling. Now, why is that significant? Because it combines, you know, the Ford truck's mission with this drive for fuel economy that requires lighter materials to do the same work.

So it's emblematic of a resurgent Detroit on the technology side, and of course it's the best foot forward in terms of sales.

BLOCK: We've seen the hybrids take off, but what about electric cars? As you look forward to 2014, do you think that electric cars are really going to start taking off?

NEIL: I'd like to say yes, but it, you know, continues to be a slow climb, and you know, and carmakers will tell you, this is kind of what they expected, incremental, you know, it's very much linked to the cost of gasoline and gasoline's been relatively affordable lately. But it's not for want of product because, for example, BMW just rolled out a beautiful urban EV called the I-3 and it's a radically different kind of car, and I think in many ways this will be the way cars will be built a decade from now.

BLOCK: And looking at a picture of it, it looks maybe more cute than flashy, this electric BMW. Price tag on this one, Dan?

NEIL: That one's about 42, and they have one coming called the I-8, which will be like a super-car version of this, and it will be quite a bit more, well, flashy, as you say, Melissa. I know that's the kind of car you go in for. And but what's remarkable about these cars is they're built on this electric-powered skateboard, and the bodies are made of carbon fiber and they're attached to them in very much a body-on-frame construction. And it opens up so many opportunities in terms of packaging and weight savings, and the thing - I drove the I-3 in Manhattan last week. It's pretty spritely for a, you know, EV mega-city car.

BLOCK: Dan, you've also been writing about tiny cars, micro commuter cars. I'm looking at one, the Toyota i-Road, that looks like it's about to tip over, actually, as it goes around a corner. You think this really has some potential?

NEIL: Yeah, well, the Toyota i-Road is the most charismatic of these little vehicles, and many of them look pretty dopey, let's face it. But car makers around the world, especially as they consider the Asian market, they realize they need many intermediary steps between walking and a full-blown automobile.

And so what's going on now is kind of a Cambrian explosion of these little cars looking for the perfect mix. You know, the i-Road isn't perfect for the United States, I would say. It could be a little hazardous, actually.

BLOCK: These would not fare well against the big SUVs, say, driving down the highway. That would be a matchup you wouldn't want to see.

NEIL: Oh, goodness, no. That would be bad. But, you know, in Asia, it's the perfect thing. I think there will be a huge market for vehicles like that in crowded Asian megacities like Shanghai and like Beijing.

BLOCK: Dan, how close are we, as you look forward to 2014, how close are we to driverless cars?

NEIL: We're closer than I think a lot of people ever thought. The Mercedes Benz S-class car I drove in Germany recently is bristling with sensors and it has a lot of onboard computation and it creates what they call a sensor net and it's already on the market, and fully autonomous cars have been promised by 2020.

The thing is, what is fully autonomous? But I do think that in two or three years, you're going to be able to buy a car that will drive down the freeway by itself for long periods, extended periods - say five, 10 minutes, something like that. I think that's very close.

BLOCK: Dan Neil is automotive columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Dan, thanks so much.

NEIL: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.