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Luxury And Self-Driving Cars Dominate Auto Show Talk


The North American International Auto Show opened to the public today in Detroit. It's one of the biggest auto shows in America.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The 2016 North American Car of the Year is the Honda Civic.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The North American Truck Utility of the Year is the Volvo XC90.

MARTIN: Following a record year of auto sales, the big stories out of the show are luxury, trucks and car features that bring us closer to cars that drive themselves. NPR's Sonari Glinton spent the week there, and he's going to tell us more. Hi, Sonari.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Hey, how's it going, Michel?

MARTIN: So the Honda Civic and the Volvo XC90 were the car and truck of the year, respectively. So let's take them one by one - the Honda Civic, how come?

GLINTON: Well, it is actually a really amazing car. They have all the modern self-driving features that you can get in a really inexpensive vehicle. You can get Lane Assist, you can get a back-up camera, you can get all these sort of things for about $20,000, and that's pretty amazing.

MARTIN: So are self-driving cars far away or not? We've heard so much about them, and it kind of make feel like they're around the corner - yes or no?

GLINTON: Well, they're around the corner and they're far away. All the easy things - the driving down the road going 65 miles an hour, we can do that. What we can't do is, you know, drive in an ice storm or figure out - is that a tumbleweed, is that a cat or is that a child? You know, there are these dynamic decisions that we have to make. And the car companies are spending billions of dollars right now on AI and robot technology. And that's a part of the show, and that's part of what everyone's excited about because they're actually putting the money in right now with the artificial intelligence. And you're seeing it in the cars.

MARTIN: So now let's talk trucks - the Volvo XC90 was the truck of the year. I'm not sure if that's what people think of when they think of the truck. So tell me, first of all, why was it the truck of the year? What's so great?

GLINTON: Well, you know, Volvo is a company that executes vehicles very well. It is an SUV. And SUVs are so important, as well as compact SUVs. This is where people are purchasing their cars. This is the playing ground. And the fact that a Chinese company, which owns Volvo, has spent about $11 billion restructuring the company is also a sign of a change in the structure of the auto industry, where a Chinese company has a seat on the floor of the North American International Auto Show. And that's a sign of a change in the industry.

MARTIN: Finally, Sonari, your interview the head of Volkswagen has been getting a lot of play in the U.S. media. CEO Matthias Muller said, quote, "we didn't lie." And he was referring, of course, to VW's emissions scandal. How are people receiving that?

GLINTON: Well, there's a lot of shock, especially in Germany because there's a sense and worry that he's not the guy to handle this really big PR problem for Volkswagen. What we have to understand is that Volkswagen is much more central to the identity of Germany than, say, Chrysler is to ours. They employ hundreds of thousands of people. And this is really serious, and the German people and the German press and regulators are wondering if Matthias Muller can smooth this out. Now, he's only been the CEO for three months, and there's a worry that he's not the person to get back the trust of the American people. And this is one of the most important markets for the company to win.

MARTIN: That NPR's Sonari Glinton. He just got back from the Detroit Auto Show. Thanks, Sonari.

GLINTON: It's a pleasure, as always. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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