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Concept Cars, Once Outlandish, Now Vital To Auto Industry's Future

Guests look over the Honda FCV fuel-cell-powered concept car during the media preview at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. (Getty Images)

Concept cars tell us much more about the current state of the auto industry than the future of it.

Showcasing the latest in styling and technology, concept cars have been virtually absent from auto shows for the past few years, but now they're back with a vengeance.

The concept cars at the Detroit auto show this year look pretty normal, but Bill Visnic of Edmunds.com says it wasn't that long ago that concept cars were just plain wack.

"But some of the really wildest of the wild that I remember back then was Chrysler was very big on plastic cars," he says. "They were going to make all-plastic cars."

Visnic says car companies can be really insular. He says they convince themselves that the future is in say, plastics, and concept cars allow automakers to do test runs for the public before they sink an average of $1 billion into a new car.

"And that way if it falls flat on its face, you can just sort of open the closet and put it in there and never show it again, and there's really no harm, no foul other than the money that you've spent up to that point to develop it," Visnic says. "It's really expensive now to bring a vehicle to production, any kind of vehicle, and then have it fall flat on its face in the market."

Companies have abandoned the really crazy ideas for designs that are much closer to reality. The new concept cars, like Honda's FCV, are ones you're more likely to see on the road.

Honda's Angie Nucci says automakers don't just learn about whether consumers will accept a whole car, but they study even the individual parts that make up each car.

"I think for a lot of manufacturers and for Honda too, it's an exercise in figuring out how is everything going to fit together?" she says. "And also we can gauge some early consumer reactions to the vehicle."

And the Buick Avenir concept is one that the car geeks at the auto show are raving about. It's a long, low vehicle with a swoop back, and it kind of screams luxury.

Michelle Krebs, an analyst with AutoTrader.com, says there is a dollars-and-cents reason for the re-emergence of these prototypes and passion projects.

"More concept cars and more performance cars and more sexy cars are representative of the booming economy," she says.

Building and moving concept cars from show to show isn't cheap, so when the economy is bad, they're the first thing to get cut from companies' budgets. But Krebs says they can be vital to the future of the industry.

"There's ego in it," she says. "But the other thing it does is it allows people to be creative. They don't have the constraints of a production car. Designers need to be thinking way out there, and some of it's not ever going to see the light of day, but you want to keep creative forces going."

Krebs says as silly as some concept cars are, they help make the cars we actually drive better.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Think of auto shows and concept cars probably come to mind. Remember the cars of the future?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Cars with sensing probes that follow the road with no help from the driver. Cars without steering wheels. Cars without transmissions.

BLOCK: New technology and new styling - that's what concept cars are all about. And after being virtually absent from auto shows for the last few years, concept cars are back with a vengeance. NPR's Sonari Glinton has this report from the big auto show in Detroit.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Car executives, techno music and crazy, new concept cars - it must be January in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the Chevrolet Bolt EV concept.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Its codename is HCD-15, but we call it Hyundai Santa Cruz.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: If you can use innovation to build the ultimate Ford performance vehicle, what would it be? Well, here's an idea.

GLINTON: Ah, Detroit, the birthplace of techno music. Anyway, concept cars tell us much more about the current state of the auto industry than the future. All these cars at the show are pretty normal. Bill Visnic from edmunds.com says it wasn't that long ago that concept cars were just plain wack.

BILL VISNIC: But some of the really wildest of the wild that I remember back then was Chrysler was very big on plastic cars. They were going to make all-plastic cars.

GLINTON: I got just one word for you - plastics. Visnic says car companies can be really insular. They can convince themselves that the future is in, say, plastics. But concept cars allow automakers to do test runs before they sink an average of $1 billion into a new car.

VISNIC: And that way, if it falls flat on its face, you can just sort of open the closet and put it in there and never show it again, and there's really no harm, no foul other than the money that you've spent up to that point to develop it. It's really expensive now to bring a vehicle to production - any kind of vehicle - and then have it fall flat on its face in the market,

GLINTON: Now, car companies have abandoned the really crazy ideas for designs that are much closer to reality. The new concept cars are ones you're more likely to see on the road.

ANGIE NUCCI: So what we're looking at right now, this is Honda's FCV concepts. And it showcases the styling evolution of Honda...

GLINTON: Angie Nucci is with Honda. She says the companies don't just learn about whether consumers will accept the whole car but also about the parts that go into them.

NUCCI: I think for a lot of manufacturers, and for Honda too, it's an exercise in figuring out how is everything going to fit together? And also we can gauge some early consumer reactions to the vehicle.

GLINTON: From Honda now to Buick. I'm standing in front of a Buick concept, the Avenir, that car geeks here are raving about. It's supposed to show the public what direction Buick is going in. It's a long, low car with a swoop back, and it kind of screams luxury.

Michelle Krebs, an analyst with autotrader.com, says there is a dollars and cents reason for the reemergence of these prototypes and passion project.

MICHELLE KREBS: More concept cars and more performance cars and more sexy cars are representative of the booming economy.

GLINTON: Building and moving concept cars from show to show isn't cheap, so when the economy is bad, they're the first thing that gets cut. But Krebs says they can be really vital.

KREBS: There's ego in it. But the other thing it does is it allows people to be creative. They don't have the constraints of a production car. Designers need to be thinking way out there, and some of it's not ever going to see the light of day. But you want to keep creative forces going.

GLINTON: Krebs says as silly as some concept cars are or have been, they help make the cars we actually drive better. From the Detroit auto show, Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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