After a two-hour flight delay, 1 a.m. Coney dog dinner, 2:30 a.m. hotel check-in, and miraculously attended 7 a.m. breakfast meeting, we finally made it to our destination: the North American International Auto Show! Perhaps better known to the reader as the Detroit Auto Show.
It wasn’t yet open to the public; we were among the lucky few who got early access thanks to our benevolent hosts at Ford. We were distinguished members of the press! Not buying it? Would you at least believe members of the press? We’re from a website; we swear! Have you heard of Will Ferrell?
We weren’t two steps in the door before a car drove past us indoors (not something you see every day) at low speed en route to a spotlight on the floor. If you believe in reincarnation, coming back as a car at the Detroit Auto Show doesn’t seem like a bad gig. You rest your tires on plush surfaces and bask in well-placed spotlights while gloved hands gently feather dust you for days on end. Unfortunately, when it’s all said and done, you have to then return to the bitter cold streets of Detroit in January. I guess not all good things can last.
Traversing the massive and densely car-filled floor, we wound up at Ford’s presence at the auto show, our home for the rest of the day. It was a huge, multi-floored experience with bright blue and white lighting and escalators that looked like they’d been there forever even though they were certainly installed in the last fortnight. You can’t keep good American engineering and ingenuity down!
Plus there were snacks! Snacks as far as the eye could see. On a trip that had already involved too much snacking, we caught our sixth snack wind and succumbed to the early morning pastry tractor beams. Our gullets full of complimentary donuts and coffee, it was oddly similar to being at an actual dealership. Only you couldn’t buy any of these cars, and nobody was trying to sell you one in the first place. So I guess almost the exact opposite besides the donuts and coffee. Feeling amply caffeinated, and somehow full of donuts for the third time so far in only 12 hours of travel, we were ready to hear from Bill Ford.
I want to be clear that if my great-grandfather started something as big as Ford, I would probably be on constant vacation. You couldn’t catch me more than 10 feet from a swimming pool or tropical ocean. I definitely wouldn’t take the time to talk to a group of 20 people (that included the likes of myself) at an auto show in Detroit in January about the company where I still work. But there was Bill Ford in the flesh!
Bill talked a bit about how he’s seen Detroit decline and resurge in his lifetime. He talked about the youth moving back, including his son, and the high hopes he had for Detroit’s future. He was genuinely optimistic about a city that a lot of Americans, including myself, all too often talk about as a lost cause. I got most of my information about Detroit from two movies that star a half-robot police officer (never saw the third and don’t count the remake), so all of this was both eye opening and a real relief. No news is good news, but good news is better.
Then Bill talked about the future of Ford, which was the reason all these companies were at the auto show in the first place. It’s like Jay Z said: If you want the old hits then buy the old album. Carmakers from all around the world were here to talk about the year to come. But instead of talking about new cars, Bill Ford stood in front of us and told us about the future of the automotive industry, car ownership as a landscape under current rapid renovation, and how Ford would fit into it.
He stated first and foremost that Ford would continue to do what they’ve been doing since the beginning: build quality cars and trucks that people are passionate about owning. In addition to their bread and butter, Ford is also emerging as a leader in “mobility.” I heard the word three times in four minutes before using context clues to realize he wasn’t just talking about getting people from point A to point B in the easiest, most convenient, and technologically advanced ways possible but also that mobility is about moving goods and services. It is means to provide health care, clean water, and more — basically helping to solve societal issues.
Ford’s biggest announcement at the auto show wasn’t a new car; it was a digital, physical, and personal experience platform. How 2016! FordPass aims to do a bunch of things to help you get where you’re going. It can connect you to other drivers to help you find parking and pay for it ahead of time. As a guy who has racked up triple-digit parking ticket fees annually, that appealed to my lifestyle. FordPass also has partnerships with brands like 7-Eleven and McDonald’s. But the most interesting feature was definitely the Ford Guides.
Ford Guides are a completely free, 24-hour service you can contact to talk to a real-live human who will solve your mobility (Is it OK for me to use that word now? Did I use it right?) problems. Let me repeat: completely free, even if you don’t own a Ford. I have a lot of friends who won’t pick up my calls, and if they do they’re usually pretty far from helpful, so it was a little hard to wrap my head around this. Ford understands that not everybody will own a Ford but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t depend on Ford to get you places. It was really forward-thinking and the other car companies, with their endless ocean of new vehicles crowding the showroom floor, just kind of looked like a dinosaur graveyard by comparison.
Ford had some more tricks up its sleeve. A pilot program in Austin that would let you split vehicle leasing with up to six friends and then you schedule who is using the car. Again, I associate with flaky friends who still haven’t paid me back for the house we rented for Coachella 2013 on my credit card (Yes, Josh, I am talking about you), but for the right group of pals this could be a huge way to have a car when you need it without paying through the nose. Bill Ford also alluded to the imminent future of autonomous cars, which peaked my interest both as a fan of robots and also not driving.
We headed to the Ford press conference in the adjacent Joe Louis Arena where I would have a chance to hear from Bill Ford again, only this time to a huge crowd on a big stage with Ryan Seacrest and Ford CEO Mark Fields. There were some video clips that would play, and then new guest speakers would hit the stage. Every time they would bring out new guest speakers, the walls of the stage would open and a car would drive out. For example a shiny new Ford Fusion would roll out and from the passenger seat an exec would hop out and start talking casually like nothing happened at all. If you’re going to give a talk to a large audience, I really recommend this style of entrance. It never gets old. I wish every public speaker started their speeches like this. It really hooks you from the jump.
We went back to the Ford section of the auto show where the morning snacks had been replaced by afternoon snacks. Our lunches came with tiny dinosaur toys, something I enjoyed so much that I didn’t question why we were getting them. Then I realized it’s because Ford had just debuted a new truck called the Raptor. Got it. Honestly, all car companies should name their cars after dinosaurs and distribute dinosaur toys. I’d probably have, like, 60 cars by now.
And that’s a wrap on day one.
Ford invited us to one of their factories and it was a pretty surreal experience. I learned about the first Ford assembly line as a kid, and I didn’t think I’d ever get to see it in real life. Turns out it’s still very much a thing! American hands building American cars in a giant American factory. Right here in America! I’m not the kind of dude who wears T-shirts with bald eagles or anything, but I felt a definite sense of pride and history in that place.
We also got to go inside the design studio where Ford built the latest model GT, their supercar. There were some models of the car in there as well as early Styrofoam composites that were much more in line with my budget. We learned the history of the GT stems from Ford trying to buy Ferrari, Ferrari saying no, and Ford turning around to build a car that would beat Ferrari on the racetrack. And they did! And that’s so awesome. I love stories like that. If you can’t buy them, beat them. That’s about as American as it gets. I was quickly becoming the kind of dude who might wear T-shirts with bald eagles.
With more knowledge of Ford as a company than I could’ve ever anticipated when we started this trip, both in terms of how they started and where they’re going, we headed back to the auto show for a few hours to hang before our flight. Even though we had lots of options of places to hang out, Ford had the best snacks, so it was a pretty easy decision. John took advantage of our downtime to host a quick episode of a show we made up called Chill Vans with the Ford Dynamic Shuttle.
We decided nothing we could do there would ever top Chill Vans and called a ride to the airport. “You’re from L.A.?” our driver said with shocked confusion. “Why’d you come to Detroit in January? They don’t have cars in L.A.? It’s freezing, man! I don’t blame you for going back. Can I come with you?” All good points. It was fun, but it was very cold and definitely time to go home. Until next time, Detroit! And thanks for the hospitality, Ford! Glad to see everything is on the up and up.