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Google drive, Model X shine auto spotlight on tech

Tuesday is one of those days when you can sense that Detroit's automakers realize their future is increasingly being overshadowed by what happens in Silicon Valley.

During the day, Google will take journalists on rides in its autonomous drive prototypes and provide updates about its research into driverless cars. Later, Tesla will deliver the first Model X, its long-anticipated electric SUV.

Together, they symbolize what many say General Motors, Ford and Chrysler lack: a vision of the auto industry's future, which revolves around driverless and electric cars.

"People not involved in the auto industry look at Tesla, the darling of media and Wall Street, and now Apple and Google, which are moving into the auto industry, and they see Silicon Valley as the future of the auto industry. And to a limited extent, that is true," said Michelle Krebs with AutoTrader.com.

Still, Krebs and other industry experts are quick to point out that the Big 3 — especially Ford and GM — are aggressively investing in autonomous drive vehicle technology, and plan to be ready when it becomes more commonplace over the next few years.

GM, for example, plans to introduce its "Super Cruise" control feature, which will allow hands- and foot-free driving on the highway, on some 2017 Cadillac models.

Still, people rarely stop and ask what's being developed by the Big 3. Instead, the questions almost always center around what Google, Tesla and Apple are working on.

"People often want to talk about the Silicon Valley newcomers, because those companies are intriguing and grab the headlines," Krebs said.

That makes Tuesday's Google ride interesting, even though the company admits it will announce little news.

You can bet video and pictures of journalists sitting in the vehicles will proliferate, just as video and pictures of the new Tesla Model X delivery will be the big car story into Wednesday morning.

Ordinarily, the unveiling of a new SUV gets moderate attention, but the Model X is not just another SUV.

With an estimated starting price of just under $80,000, the Model X is the second mass-market model from Tesla; if it's successful, it will be another example of CEO Elon Musk defying expectations.

When the Model S came out in 2012, many predicted Tesla would be unable to sell large numbers of a luxury electric car. Yes, Musk and his team have stumbled at times — most notably in China — but overall, sales of the Model S have grown steadily, and are expected to top 40,000 units this year.

Now, Tesla plans to grab the headlines again with the Model X.

"If the Model X launches well and gains great consumer enthusiasm, it certainly bodes well for other Tesla launches in the future," said Kelley Blue Book's Jack Nerad. "Certainly the next model, the so called mass-market model, is a more important launch than these two, but you have to lay the ground work."

The world, and especially those in Detroit, will be watching.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.