In the past, Detroit's auto executives competed against one another with muscle, raw horsepower covered by chrome and sheet metal.
That has changed.
The new competition involves computer chips, electronic sensors, Internet access and other wireless communications, and the ability to exploit those devices and systems to sell more than cars and trucks.
That much became clear here during a week of executive interviews and product exhibits at the 2000 North American International Auto Show.
There was much more than varoom in the voices of the nation's auto leaders, and far more than engine displacement and hot wheels on display at the manufacturers' pavilions. In fact, many of the exhibits, such as those by Sony Corp. and Motorola Inc., would have fit just as nicely in a consumer electronics convention.
"We didn't want to put overdue emphasis on exterior design," said Jacques Nasser, Ford Motor Co.'s president and chief executive.
Ford shocked members of the international automotive media with the unveiling of its 24-7 concept vehicles, a linear, boxlike trio of cars and hybrid car/trucks laden with telecommunications and electronic infotainment equipment, including devices that could receive wireless Internet feeds of news, e-mail, advertisements and other information.
Traditional auto journalists turned up their noses at the display. Nasser smiled and said he understood.
"They don't get it," Nasser said. "They come here looking for varoom and shiny new sheet metal. We have that. We can do that. But that is not what this is about," he said, referring to the experimental 24-7 vehicles. "It's about establishing the car as the Internet on wheels."
Similar talk came from John F. Smith Jr., president and chief executive of General Motors Corp., as well as from Smith's lieutenants, GM Vice Chairman Harry J. Pearce, GM President and Chief Operating Officer G. Richard Wagoner, and Mark Hogan, president of E-GM, the automaker's e-commerce division.
Both automakers used the Detroit show this week to announce major business deals with Internet companies. Ford signed a deal with Yahoo Inc. under which the Internet portal and search service will carry detailed information on Ford vehicles, sales and services.
GM announced a similar agreement with America Online Inc., the largest Internet provider, with more than 21 million subscribers, and with NetZero Inc., the nation's largest provider of free Internet access based on the number of registered users--about 3 million people.
Conspicuously absent from the announcements was any mention of using the Web services to provide details on vehicle pricing, a step long opposed by auto dealers who say they should have the exclusive right to set prices.
But all the Ford and GM executives who were interviewed said their dealers are fighting for a lost cause on the pricing issue and that, one way or another, automakers will begin to make that information available over the Internet.
"It's inevitable that this is going to happen," said Nasser, who has vowed to make his company the nation's top e-commerce business. "Things are changing. Our dealers are going to have to change."
Said GM's Smith: "We are determined to give our consumers as much detailed information as we can. That includes pricing. It's going to happen."
E-GM's Hogan pointed out that much pricing information already is available on the Internet through sites such as Edmunds.com. He said E-GM is negotiating with those companies to set up ways to handle GM pricing information.
DaimlerChrysler AG, formed in 1998 through a buyout of Chrysler Corp. by German industrial giant DaimlerBenz AG, has taken a go-slow approach toward e-commerce in hopes of avoiding any major conflicts with its U.S. dealers.
"We're working on some things," said James P. Holden, president of DaimlerChrysler's North American operations. "But whatever we do, we want to do with the full support of our dealers."
But Holden said that "go slow" does not mean "no go."
Other DaimlerChrysler executives said that the company soon will announce an aggressive e-commerce strategy of its own.
The idea, Nasser said, is to broaden consumer bases, to use the Internet to sell cars, everything related to cars, and products from Ford Internet partners. "When you look at e-commerce and the Internet as it relates to the auto industry, you see the possibility of changing advertising strategies, and the potential of developing separate enterprises," Nasser said.
That has tremendous implications for traditional media outlets, such as newspapers, magazines, television and radio. For example, in the future, Hogan predicts that GM will shift more of its advertising dollars from traditional media to the Internet.
How much? Hogan declined to say. "But we, like other automakers, will shift more of those resources to Internet advertising," Hogan said.
It is a logical development, according to a new research report by KPMG LLP, a division of KPMG Peat Marwick.
"Consumer demands and the Internet are forcing a shift to a technology-based business model," said Brian M. Ambrose, KPMG's national director for industrial and automotive products.
"We're seeing the transformation of one of the world's most important industries just as it enters a Web-based universe where information is king," Ambrose said in his report. "The auto giants will shift their focus from producing cars to marketing them, which is a radical concept for managers who have grown up in the auto business."
GM Chairman Smith said he agrees with much of that assessment. "But it can go too far," Smith said. "People still want great cars. You have to have something to put all of that technology on."
But Ambrose is dead-on on one point, Smith said. "We want to be your service company. We want to sell you cars. We want to sell you everything," he said.
CAPTION: The 24-7 hybrid car/truck, like the other 24-7 concept vehicles, features advanced communications technology. "It's about establishing the car as the Internet on wheels," says Ford CEO Jacques Nasser.
CAPTION: According to Ford's Jacques Nasser, left, and GM's John F. Smith Jr., right, the two companies agree on at least one thing: The Internet will play an integral part in their future--on the road and off.