What’s New for 2017: Detroit Auto Show Review

May 2, 2017
A locksmith looks at the newest models in the pipeline, naturally paying special attention to their locking systems.

For over 20 years, it has been my privilege to attend the annual “Press Days” at the Detroit Auto Show, which is also known as the “North American International Auto Show” or NAIAS.  The “Press Days” are the last couple of days before the show opens to the public in early January.  This is when the press conferences are held introducing the new models.  I’m sure that you’ve seen some of the stunts that have been staged to introduce new vehicles, such as the Jeep crashing through a window (Photo 1), after being escorted by police from the assembly line. In the infamous 2008 “Cattle Drive” that Chrysler staged to introduce the new Ram (Photo 2), apparently the cattle didn’t read the script.  When the cowboys tried to turn the herd around to go back to the railroad yard, during the actual press conference, the cattle “misbehaved” and upstaged the executives from Chrysler. There's also the infamous “Teleportation” stunt that GM did to introduce a new Corvette.  Some of these stunts become legends and some, like the teleportation stunt, were huge flops but it is always interesting to watch.

The press days are also when the engineers and designers are there to answer questions from the press about the technical specifications of the new models.  The vehicles themselves are also available for through inspection and photography that is simply not allowed during the public show.  For years, I’ve taken full advantage of the press days to do a lot of research for my car-opening manuals and my newer “Quick Reference Automotive Manual.”  Each year, I look forward to talking to some of my favorite engineers, some of which have now become friends.  I think they like the fact that I ask questions that no one else asks like “OK, where did you hide the emergency lock?” or “Why does this Infiniti have a Mercedes lock system?”  And of course, I get some odd looks when I ask to see the keys, or ask which way the key turns to unlock the door.

I’ll never forget the incredulous look that a VW vice president gave me in 1998 at the press conference for the introduction of the “New Beetle.”  I asked the lady if they had procedures in place to produce duplicate or replacement keys for their (at that time) new lock system.  She looked at me like I had suddenly sprouted a second head, and replied in heavily accented English, “Ve give dem three keys!”  (Within a year my friend, Phil Agius at Framon, was selling every VW dealer in the country a new key machine.)

While the show this year did not have as much flash and showmanship as in some previous years, it was still full of new and exciting vehicles and new technologies.  It seems that every year, some new technology becomes the rage and the manufacturers seem to be in a competition to see who can implement the technology with the most fanfare.  In past years, it has been things like in-vehicle roadside assistance technology like OnStar, or safety features like side-impact airbags, or convenience features such as passive keyless entry. 

This year, numerous manufacturers were bragging about their new “Birdseye View” camera systems (Photo-3).  These systems give the driver an in-dash video display of their vehicle as if seen from above to help with parking and to avoid accidents.

This technology is directly descended from the Hollywood systems that seemingly stop time and allow the actors to walk through a “frozen” scene, such as an explosion, car crash, gunfight or other three dimensional reality.  The process involves many camera views of the same scene shot from many different positions.  A powerful computer processes all of the images and then can extrapolate a realistic image, essentially a computer animation based on all of the images that appears to be from any vantage point.  The automotive systems are not nearly that complex and only produce an image from one position (overhead) but they still do an impressive job of simulating reality.  These new systems can not only keep you from backing over the trash can, but can also potentially save pedestrian lives.

This technology may seem frivolous when applied to parking, but it is just one of many spin-off technologies that we will be seeing in the near future from self-driving car systems.  The push for self-driving “Autonomous Vehicle” technology has been embraced from everyone from Tesla to Uber, and will be a reality in the near future (Photo 4).  It seemed that every major manufacturer has some sort of autonomous vehicle initiative under way that is destined to make our lives easier and safer.  At the same time, very few of them seemed to appreciate my jokes about them manufacturing the “foot-soldiers of the robot apocalypse.”

Another new technology that seemed to be everywhere was “Virtual Reality” or VR.  Many of the displays allowed the viewers to don VR goggles so they could explore vehicle features, watch the manufacturing, or simulate driving.  Some like Audi, had VR games and attractions to show off their new technology.

Electric cars have become commonplace at this point, and pretty much everyone has electric vehicles in their production line-up.  But, the variety of electric vehicles is growing steadily and the number of electric vehicles available today is staggering.  In fact, most of the “Concept Vehicles” that are designed to showcase new design elements and technologies that may influence future vehicles were electric vehicles.

The one that I enjoyed the most was the “I.D. Buzz,” (Photo 5), the third VW Bus concept that I’ve seen in Detroit over the years.  The I.D. stands for “Intelligent Design” or “Iconic Design,” depending on who you ask.  The Term is being generally applied by VW to its new generation of electric vehicles which are all part of VWs stated commitment to an “Electric Future.”  The I.D. Buzz has it all: it’s an electric vehicle, it’s capable of autonomous driving, and it’s filled with “Environmentally Friendly” materials like bamboo and recycled plastics (Photo 6).

In keeping with the “International” part of the NAIAS name, there are often exhibits from international car makers that are not yet selling vehicles in the U.S.  In the past, I’ve seen exhibits from Chery, Great Wall, and BYD who are all Chinese auto manufacturers. 

This year China was represented by GAC (Guangzhou Automobile Industry Group) (Photos 7 and 8) who presented several cars and trucks that they hope to sell in North America in the near future.  Not surprisingly, several of these vehicles looked a lot like existing vehicles offered by other manufacturers.  It remains to be seen which Chinese auto maker will be the first to enter the US market, but it’s only a matter of time.  And, judging from the vehicles that I’ve seen at NAIAS, Chinese vehicles are improving steadily.

I spent two 14-hour days on the show floor at this year’s NAIAS, and I could go on for days about what I saw there, but below are a few of the vehicles that stood out in my opinion.  Naturally, I was looking at these vehicles from a locksmith’s perspective, but I’ve also been a “Car Guy” for most of my life, so some of these are vehicles that I might want to drive myself.  I’m going to list these alphabetically simply to make the selection easier.

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio

I heard several different pronunciations of the name, and frankly I’m not sure how to properly pronounce it, but according to Wikipedia it is named after a curvy mountain pass in Northern Italy.  When this vehicle goes on sale in the US, it will be the first SUV offered by Alfa Romeo (Photo 9).  The lock system looks a lot like the Fiat system, and pulling the inside door handle will override the lock system and unlock the vehicle if the keys are locked inside.

2017 Fiat 124 Spider

Like the Fiat 500, the 124 Spider (Photo 10) is a revival of an older vehicle that was sold at one time in the U.S.  In my younger days I worked on and drove several Fiat 124 Spiders and have fond memories of how well they handled.  I also have not-so- fond memories of working on the same cars.  The new Fiat 124 Spider looks like it would be a hoot to drive and I expect to see many of them on the road soon.  Fiat has a new commercial for the 124 Spider featuring the same old guy who dropped the Viagra in an earlier Fiat 500X commercial.  I promise that you’ll smile when you see it.  The lock system on the Fiat 124 Spider is essentially the same as the Fiat 500, so if you are already servicing those, you should be able to service the 124 Spider.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt

Even though the Bolt (Photo 11) and the Volt sound alike and are both Chevrolets, they are very different. The Bolt is totally electric while the Volt uses a gasoline engine to generated power when needed.  The Bolt is a small “Crossover” that looks like it will be popular with the young crowd.  Push-button start is standard on both the Volt and the bolt and both use odd places to program additional fobs.  The programming slot for the Volt is on top of the dashboard.  The Bolt doesn’t have a slot for fob programming; instead it has a spot with raised tabs to hold the fob in the bottom of the center console (Photo 12). You must remove the lift-out liner of the console remove to access the programming “slot.”  This liner should allow you to remove and replace the contents of the console easily and neatly.

2018 Ford F-150

Ford is calling the 2018 F-150 (Photo-13) a “new” vehicle, but from my point of view, I really don’t see many changes.  Most of the changes that I’ve read and heard about are technological improvements and some “refreshing” of the styling.  But from our point of view, making keys and servicing the locks will not change much at all.

2018 Chevrolet Traverse

For 2018, GM has decided to realign its offerings of SUVs.  Some, like the Acadia and Terrain will get smaller, and others like the Traverse (Photo-14) get substantially bigger.  The new Traverse uses a cable operated lock system with vertical buttons on all four doors.  Thanks to the side-impact safety requirements, the inside handle on the front doors will override the lock system, allowing us to unlock the Traverse easily with a long-reach tool.  And like most of the other GM trucks, the Traverse will be using the side-milled 10 cut lock system.

2018 Genesis G80 and G90

Last year, Hyundai decided to follow the lead of Toyota and Nissan, and spin off its top-of-the-line Genesis vehicles into a whole new luxury brand (Photo 15).  2018 will see the introduction of the first two vehicles in the new Genesis lineup.  The G80 is shown here, but the G90 is essentially a longer wheelbase version of the G80, offering extended limousine-like legroom for the rear seat passengers.  Push-button start and concealed emergency locks will be standard equipment, but the inside handles will override the lock system.

2017 Infiniti QX30

As I was going through the Infiniti lineup, I hit a mental speed-bump when I got to the new QX30 (Photo 16).  Instead of the “Start” button that I had expected, there was what appeared to be a typical FOBIK socket in the dash (Photo 17).  I then took another look at the door lock and realized that it sure looked a lot like a Mercedes 2-track lock.  I then went looking for someone at the Infiniti information desk for an explanation. 

As it turns out, the Infiniti QX30 is a “Joint Venture” with Mercedes, and is essentially a re-styled and re-badged Mercedes GLA, which is also new for this year.  I was assured that unlike the Chrysler Crossfire, owners of the QX30 would not have to go to Mercedes for duplicate or replacement keys.  No one could tell me exactly how this would work, but I plan to find out as soon as possible.  But in the meantime, I think locksmiths should think of the Infiniti QX30 as a Mercedes instead of as a Nissan product.  On a side note, the sticker price of the QX30 is less than the price for the GLA, and according to several articles that I’ve read, the build quality, comfort, and convenience aspects of the QX30 are higher than for the Mercedes GLA.

2017 Lincoln Continental

I saw the new Continental (Photo 18) last year as a pre-production model and was impressed with its size and retro / modern styling.  I couldn’t help but compare the new Continental to the one that JFK was riding in when he was shot, and apparently I’m not alone in that.  When I spoke to one of the reps, I brought that up and found out that many in my age group say the same thing.  (This seemed to be a puzzling thing for the rep, who was born well after the Kennedy assignation.)  He also told me that because of the associations with the Kennedy shooting, there would be no convertible version of the Continental. 

Naturally, the lock system interested me the most, and the Continental system is unique.  (I normally avoid using the word unique, but in this case it is defiantly true.)  The Continental does not have an inside mechanical door handle and the door can only be opened from the inside electronically (Photo 19).  Even the outside door handles only activate an electronic door latch mechanism.  To exit the vehicle, you must press a button that is recessed into the armrest.

I asked about safety issues and what would happen if the battery was disconnected or destroyed in a collision.  I was assured that the system had been tested rigorously for that situation and that the door latch incorporated a capacitor capable of unlatching the door 30 times with the battery disconnected.  The rep also added that it had even been tested under water “just in case.”

The emergency lock cylinder, designed to be used only if the electronics failed in some way, is also interesting.  I searched in vain for it, and finally asked one of the Lincoln engineers.  When I asked him a big smile lit up his face as he obviously enjoyed how well hidden it was.  He then showed me the emergency lock that is incorporated into the trim on the lower forward portion of the driver’s side door (Photo 20).

2018 Toyota Camry

Of all the press conferences that I’ve attended in the last 20+ years, this may have been the lamest one ever – not counting the Corvette teleportation ordeal.  Comedy is a difficult thing to pull off successfully and Toyota just doesn’t seem to have the knack.  But after the presentation was finally over, we got to see the all new Camry (Photo 21) up close and personal.  My first thought was “yup, it’s a Camry.”  While you have to give Toyota credit for trying to update the looks and styling of the Camry, there is only so much that you can do to jazz up a “family car” icon.  Yes, it looks sportier than previous versions, but if you saw one in a parking lot today, you would know instantly that it was a Camry.  As far as the lock system goes, that is essentially unchanged, other than for the way the emergency door lock is now visible and accessible through a hole in the outside handle.

2018 Volkswagen Atlas

The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas (Photo 22) is an all new full-size SUV that will be built in Chattanooga Tenn.  This will be the largest VW built on the same platform that is shared by many VW group vehicles including the Audi Q3, VW Passat, Tiguan and many others.  This revolutionary platform is known as the MQB, or “Modular Transvers Matrix” which allows the VW group to cut costs by sharing many platform components across a variety of different vehicles of various sizes.  This modular system allows VW an unparalleled flexibility for different transversely mounted engine and transmission systems, including gasoline, diesel, hybrid and all electric.  The Atlas features a typical VW locking system with the new style concealed door lock cylinder and inside handles that will override the lock system.