Mazda Defends Human Drivers, Disses Robots at the Detroit Auto Show

The zoom-zoom company is, unsurprisingly and commendably, "firmly on the side of driving."

Let Ford, Waymo, and everyone else tussle over the self-driving car and talk smack about the future. Here at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show, automakers seemingly can’t wait to plan the obsolescence of human pilots.

But if you see Mazda as a keeper of the driving flame—an image their marketing department has worked hard to cultivate—and a bulwark against dorky bubble pods with no steering wheels and zombie-fied humans inside, that’s fine with Robert Davis.

“You can pry the steering wheel out of my cold, dead hand,” says Davis, Mazda’s senior vice-president of U.S. operations, racer, and race-team owner. “The autonomous position we take is that the human brain is the most powerful and valuable computer in the car, and will be for some time. We are firmly on the side of driving.”

For the moment, it’s not clear that Americans are embracing his Defense of Driving. Mazda, despite its virtually unmatched lineup of great looking, fun-to-drive and critically-lauded cars—from the iconic MX-5 Miata to the all-new CX-5 shown in Detroit—saw its sales tumble 6.7 percent in 2016.

Davis ascribed some of that to the difficulties faced by traditional cars.“The segment is just getting pummeled,” Davis said.

The Mazda3 and Mazda6, especially, are often forced to compete on price against more mass-market sedans, from the Toyota Corolla to the Honda Accord, whose makers must move hundreds of thousands of cars a year to keep dedicated sedan factories humming. To do that, many competitors are “doing the zero percent for 72 months with $1,000 on top of that, and we’re just not going to do that kind of incentive business,” Davis says.

Instead of grabbing buyers with a long-term loan, then not seeing them again for five or six years, Mazda is determined to build loyalty via the styling, engineering, and craftsmanship of its cars. The effort is beginning to pay off: More than 40 percent of Mazda buyers are now returning for another Mazda, up from barely 20 percent five years ago. But there’s still a long way to go.

Honda retains well over 60 percent of its customers, Davis says, “so they’re doing it all right.”

The CX-3 and CX-5 crossovers are holding down the sales fort for Mazda, and the all-new CX-9 is just now gaining traction after arriving at dealerships in summer. Mazda’s cupboard also ran bare, as dealers went without any CX-9’s for more than two months as Mazda switched production to the new version.

Autonomy does have potential for good, Davis admits, especially in congested cities that can benefit from less gridlock and more green space. Nor is Mazda averse to semi-autonomous systems, such as its Smart City Braking—but it wants those systems to support drivers, not supplant them.

“Full autonomy is just a race to build the best and most comfortable La-Z-Boy in a car,” Davis says. “For our customers, that’s not a solution.”

Mazda research affirms something we’ve long suspected, based on voluminous sales of appliances like the Corolla: some 80 percent of American buyers have little or no interest in key Mazda attributes such as styling and performance. But Mazda will be content to chase people for whom driving still matters, to paraphrase the company slogan.

“They enjoy driving. They see it as a release or an escape, and not a chore,” Davis says. “They’re not the lady in the fast lane with a death grip on the wheel.”

In that vein, Davis makes an analogy with an industry that’s “near-and-dear to [his] heart”: Microbrewers, from California’s Stone to Founder’s and Bell’s, in Michigan. Let the masses drink their Budweiser and other beers that taste exactly the same, Davis says. Mazda buyers are more the discerning type, and there are plenty of them to make a profitable business that can be proud of its superior taste, character, and, well, kick.

“If we can be the craft beer of the car business, bring it on,” he says.