Atlanta car execs tout positive sales for 2018

There is tremendous optimism for the future of nation’s auto industry, a panel of locally-headquartered auto manufacturers told a group of business leaders on Monday.

The disruption caused by changing consumer habits and technology that has rattled other economic sectors - including the auto industry - is forcing leaders to embrace new business models and artificial intelligence technology to meet consumer demands, they say.

Cox Automotive President Sandy Schwartz hosted the panel that included, Klaus Zellmer, CEO of Porsche USA; Dietmar Exler, CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA; and Larry Dominique, president and CEO of Peugeot North America.

Sponsored by the Atlanta Economics Club, panel members discussed the current state of the auto industry; mobility issues; the impact of the trade wars and how technology is driving the industry. The session was held at the Jim Kennedy Center on the Cox Corporate Campus in Sandy Springs.

All three CEOs said 2018 was a good year for their companies.

“I’m feeling bullish about the economy,” said Exler. “2018 has been a bit of a surprise. We’re still the No. 1 luxury car manufacturer.”

The executives did say that rising interest rates and the growing global trade war may provide short-term headwinds.

"Protectionism is not good," said Dominique. Groupe PSA, the French parent company of Peugeot and Citroën announced in January that it was locating its North American base of operations in the region.

The automakers also discussed the rethinking of traditional sales models and leases. So-called subscription models, where customers essentially lease a vehicle per month in a program that includes the vehicle, insurance, maintenance and other perks. Unlike a lease, the subscription services tend to be shorter, and clients can change models frequently.

Porsche launched its subscription model in Atlanta last year. Porsche Passport is an app-based subscription program that provides on-demand access to Porsche's fleet of luxury-sports models.

PSA’s first product to launch in the U.S. is its Free2Move app, a mobility app that connects users to every car-sharing service — such as Zipcar — in a given city.

Industry officials also are rethinking the car, including investing heavily in autonomous vehicles.

“Will we have a car that you use your cell phone and it comes out of the garage and picks you up in front of your house and drives you to work? Probably not for a while,” said Exler. “But there is technology coming that will let the car drive itself for period of time. That’s coming.”

Cox Automotive, with 24,000 employees and annual revenue of about $7.5 billion, is the second-largest division of Cox Enterprises, which also owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.