I attended three international auto shows in January.

The first was in Las Vegas.  It wasn’t billed as an auto show – it was the Consumer Electronics show – but in recent years, this one in particular, it was readily apparent that one of the hottest consumer electronics topics is the automobile.

Specifically, electrified, connected and shared automobiles.

Established automakers, such as Toyota, Volkswagen, and Hyundai, were joined by new entrants such as Byton, in displaying and demonstrating new concepts for personal and commercial transportation.  For  years we’ve been talking about convergence – about how cars are going to be much more than cars – and CES this year proved it.

One week later, the automotive world converged on Detroit for an auto show that was billed as an auto show.  In Detroit, we saw even more of the automobile’s future.

And then in was on to Montreal, for the latest round of negotiations over modernizing the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.

I’ve noticed, with dismay, that a fair number of policymakers in the U.S. treat NAFTA as if it’s a simple math problem:  all we need to do is find the right formula for dividing up between Mexico, Canada and the U.S. the amount of steel, aluminum, rubber, plastic, chemicals and chips that go into cars and trucks made in North America.

That might work if the NAFTA region were its own hermetically sealed environment – if it were somewhat like the slogan for Las Vegas, where what’s built in NAFTA stays in NAFTA.  But that’s clearly not the case.  Auto trade is global.

The NAFTA countries export vehicles all over the world, as well as import them.

The key point is this:  While demand for these vehicles will be everywhere – China, India, Europe, Japan, the U.S. – they can be built anywhere.   Right now, most of the vehicles Americans buy are built in the United States and throughout North America.  That’s why the United States has been winning under NAFTA.  

And that’s really what the NAFTA negotiations are about:  who’s going to build the vehicles of the future, and how we can get the trading rules right so that North America remains an auto manufacturing powerhouse.

I saw the transformation sweeping through the auto industry in Las Vegas, Detroit and Montreal.  All of the sexy and exciting things happening on the tech side will ultimately filter through the policy side in Washington.   And that policy filter can encourage American automotive progress, or it can stifle innovation, putting industry competitiveness and growth at risk.  Whether we’re talking about NAFTA, legislation now moving through Congress to accelerate the safety benefits from automated vehicles or a new infrastructure bill, there is a lot at stake as the year plays out.  We need to get these policies right, or we risk the jobs and promise of these extraordinary technologies and the innovation they bring.