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Will driverless cars mean the end of the road for the Chicago Auto Show?

When the 110th Chicago Auto Show opens Feb. 10, enthusiasts will flock to McCormick Place to kick the tires, drool over the latest models and picture themselves behind the wheel of a new car.

With the rise of driverless cars and ride-sharing threatening to turn everyone into a passenger, the traditional auto show may someday seem as antiquated as a horse and buggy convention.

But David Sloan, general manager of the Chicago Auto Show, doesn’t believe that day is imminent.

“We’re in a healthy spot right now,” Sloan said. “The question is how we will adapt to the coming changes.”

A decade removed from a recession that nearly sank the American auto industry, annual sales are flirting with all-time highs, driven by crossover vehicles and awakening demand from millennials. But the road ahead seems uncertain as automakers scramble to develop electric and autonomous vehicles, tooling up for a seismic shift in how consumers drive and buy cars.

Until then, turning McCormick Place into a 1 million-square-foot new car showroom works just fine for automakers and consumers alike.

“You don’t have to worry about the Chicago Auto Show going away for the next decade or more,” said Michelle Krebs, a Detroit-based auto industry analyst for Autotrader.

Billed as the largest auto show in North America, the annual Chicago event touts nearly 1,000 vehicles on display from 36 manufacturers for its 10-day run, including concept cars, crossovers, sports cars and exotic “super cars.”

Self-driving vehicles are not scheduled to make an appearance at this year’s show, Sloan said.

“We have all this hype around autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing and electric vehicles, and they are the future,” Krebs said. “But today, millions of people go to auto shows, in Detroit and Chicago and elsewhere, to buy their next car.”

The vehicles carmakers bring to the show reflect that.

Fiat Chrysler announced this week it will provide thousands of Pacifica hybrid minivans to Waymo, Google’s self-driving car unit, which is launching its first public ride-hailing service later this year in Phoenix.

But the automaker will focus entirely on vehicles people can drive — and buy — at the Chicago Auto Show, Fiat Chrysler spokesman Rick Deneau said.

“The big things for us are an all-new Jeep Wrangler, an all-new Ram light-duty truck and Jeep Cherokee, and of course we’ll have the Jeep driving track,” Deneau said. “I think consumers still continue to look forward to that.”

Ford is developing its own autonomous vehicles, with plans to begin production in 2021 for fleet applications such as ride-hailing and delivery services. But don’t expect any prototypes at this month’s expo.

“We don’t have any autonomous vehicles planned for display at the Chicago show,” said Alan Hall, spokesman for Ford’s autonomous vehicle development.

The North American International Auto Show wrapped up Sunday in Detroit, drawing 809,161 attendees, according to the show’s organizers. Attendance has essentially been flat since 2000.

Sloan declined to give specific figures for the Chicago Auto Show, but he said attendance has likewise been “pretty steady” in recent years.

Vehicle sales in the U.S. also have been steady, topping 17 million for the past three years.

Despite falling 1.8 percent last year to 17.2 million, sales remain far above the depths of the recession in 2009, when two of the Big Three automakers declared bankruptcy and sales tumbled to about 10 million — a nearly 40-year low.

But there are signs that vehicle ownership peaked more than a decade ago, according to a January study published by Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

The study found that after years of climbing steadily, ownership topped out at 2.05 vehicles per household in 2006. In 2016, the average household owned 1.968 vehicles, roughly on par with ownership levels 20 years earlier.

Another concern for the industry — and the auto show — is a millennial generation that has been slow to embrace car ownership and seems more interested in technology than torque. While experts say millennials have begun buying new cars in greater numbers, they remain a wild card in the long-term future of the industry.

“They’re active in the market and they’ll overtake the baby boomers in the coming years,” Krebs said. “But they may well be the generation that forgoes a second or third vehicle. They are much more open to the idea of sharing and autonomous.”

The auto show circa 2018 will feature lots of crossover vehicles, a growth area for the industry as sales of the traditional sedan continue to slip.

Technology also will be on display, an extension of the omnipresent connectivity that extends from smartphones to washing machines. Cars are becoming smarter, gaining everything from the ability to park themselves and avoid accidents to seamless integration that turns a vehicle into a 3,000-pound mobile device.

“The automakers have done such a good job making their displays interactive and trying to help consumers understand about this new technology that’s coming online,” Sloan said.

Fully autonomous vehicles — the ultimate technological innovation — are still in test mode and are several years away from hitting the roads, but automakers are gearing up for early adopters, primarily in fleets such as taxi and ride-sharing services.

The technology employs an array of sensors to see the road and surroundings, feeding the data to a central computer that makes split-second decisions about steering, accelerating and braking.

Proponents say it is safer than letting people do the driving, eliminating hazards such as road rage and distractions, which can lead to accidents.

Ford has invested a billion dollars in Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based artificial intelligence company, to partner in the development of its own autonomous vehicles, which are being road-tested in Michigan and Pennsylvania, Hall said.

He said the fleet will need to be commercial-grade and capable of “withstanding the rigors of an urban environment,” where the vehicles will be used to deliver everything from people to pizzas.

Ford's Torrence Avenue plant on Chicago's South Side — where the company builds Explorer SUVs, which serve as the base for its Police Interceptor Utility model — will play at least an indirect role in the development of autonomous vehicles, Hall said.

“The experience we have with police vehicles such as those manufactured in Chicago … we want to apply to our autonomous vehicle,” he said.

Fiat Chrysler began partnering with Waymo in 2016, and unlike Ford and GM, is not investing in the development of its own autonomous vehicle technology.

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“We have a little different approach than some others,” Deneau said. “We’re not trying to do things soup to nuts; we’re trying to work with the folks that are the experts in that space.”

Drivers are getting slightly more comfortable with the concept of handing the wheel to a computer, according to a study released last week by AAA. The annual survey found that 63 percent of U.S. drivers were afraid to ride in an autonomous vehicle, down from 78 percent in 2017. Millennials were more trusting of the technology, with half ready to ride shotgun with a robot driver.

Consumers should have some time to get used to the concept before self-driving cars come into widespread personal use, Krebs said

“The average consumer is not going to have an autonomous vehicle in their garage anytime soon,” Krebs said. “We’re talking 10, 20, maybe 30 years before everybody is traveling around in autonomous vehicles.”

Krebs said the initial cost of autonomous vehicles will be prohibitive for most buyers, and may lead to a new business model for acquiring personal transportation, such as monthly subscription services or pay-by-mile plans.

It may also lead to the end of the two-car family, she said. What it means for auto shows remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Auto Show is sticking to its well-traveled route to success, setting up displays, rolling out the glitz and looking to pack in potential buyers of traditional vehicles, as it has since the first event in 1901.

“We’ll continue to do that as long as we can,” Sloan said.

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @RobertChannick

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