For generations the Detroit auto show served as one of the world’s premier automotive industry events.
Chevrolet Corvettes, Jeep Wranglers, Ford F-150 pickup trucks: When the big three automakers introduced an important redesign of a model to the U.S. market, the show, set in “Motor City,” typically hosted the debut. Overseas automakers followed. Mercedes-Benz unveiled the first redesign of its iconic G-Wagen since 1979 in Detroit last year.
The show, formally called the North American International Auto Show, survived recessions that slashed automaker participation and consumer attendance. It weathered the demise of storied nameplates such as Studebaker, AMC, Mercury, Plymouth and Pontiac. It thrived in the boom years, especially in recent years as the U.S. auto market reached annual sales of 17 million vehicles.
But now it’s gone from first to worst. The 2019 edition of the Detroit auto show was a shadow of its former self, eclipsed by CES a week before and the digital disruption underway in the auto industry.
Prior to this year’s show, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Volvo, Mazda, Mini, Jaguar, Land Rover and Mitsubishi bailed.
Tesla, the fastest growing U.S. nameplate last year, didn’t show up. It’s not like these companies don’t see value in auto shows. They displayed at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November and most will be at the New York International Auto Show in April. Collectively, they account for more than 10 percent of U.S. auto sales, and an even greater percentage of what consumers purchase, because most of these marques have almost no daily rental fleet sales compared with the domestic and Asian brands.
This year’s show had some good reveals, notably Ford’s new Explorer and GT500 Shelby Mustang, Ram’s redesigned heavy-duty pickup truck line and Toyota’s Supra sports car. Big debuts create buzz, but the real importance of auto shows is letting consumers peruse new models in a dealer-free environment.
Auto shows are about admiring vehicle styling, checking interiors, looking up horsepower and fuel economy estimates, wincing at prices and developing an emotional connection to a model you’re either going to buy or remember when you win the lottery. Automakers know this and do their best to spotlight their best vehicles, literally. They scurry to keep the autos fingerprint- and dust-free, and they are sure to have a product specialist standing by to answer questions.
The number of automakers that ghosted Detroit this year left show organizers scrambling to fill the Cobo Center’s floor space. This created unusual configurations. The displays of eternal rivals Chevrolet and Ford abutted each other. Envy Auto Group, a St. Clair Shores, Mich., dealer of luxury and exotic vehicles, took prime display space at the intersection of FCA, Ford and GMC. It was a no-budget display that looked like a parking lot, sans valet.
Organizers turned a section that in previous years might have housed BMW or Mercedes-Benz into a food court. RK Rally, a company that plans exotic and sports car rallies in the Midwest, gobbled up another large chunk of real estate.
The Detroit auto show organizers are struggling to deal with the ongoing, gradual transformation of a vehicle from a machine to a device. As autos become digital and electric, the news and interest has shifted to the tech world. The sprawling Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas convenes annually just days before the Detroit show opens for the media. CES has become one of the go-to locales for making big automotive news.
Mercedes-Benz used CES for the U.S. premiere of its new all-electric EQ sub-brand and its EQC crossover. It also debuted its new CLA Coupe, saying it picked CES as the host because the technology in the car was more important than the sheet metal. Its Daimler Trucks sister brand earned a Best of CES award for its partially autonomous Freightliner Cascadia.
Digital driving assistance and safety features, connectivity and advanced electric powertrains are just beginning to replace horsepower and combustion engine displacement as the metrics both the industry and consumers are watching. These are the systems of a device rather than a machine.
A matter of the market
But this is not just a case of CES sucking the air out of Detroit.
Automakers spend tens of millions of dollars on fancy show displays because they want to sell vehicles. They will make some news with model debuts at the outset of the biggest shows, but what they really want is to have 1 million consumers attend on the public days. Detroit is an important automotive industry hub, but the Midwest region lacks the market strength of the locations of the other big U.S. auto shows.
Los Angeles and New York are the top markets for the luxury brands. California is the top market for green vehicles, hybrids and advanced technology such as fuel cell cars. Almost anywhere in Texas is the best place to show a pickup truck.
The NAIAS leadership is confronting these issues. The January show was the last; the next one will be held in June 2020. Organizers have nearly 18 months to reinvent the show so that it’s relevant to both the industry and consumers.
The obstacles are big. Moving to June leaves Los Angeles and CES as the prime venues for vehicle debuts. Automakers may also choose to increase the number of standalone model reveals in warmer locations far from Detroit during winter months. Affiliated events such as the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards will need to find a new home.
This is a microcosm of what is going on in the auto industry. Automakers – who expect individual vehicle ownership rates to decline – are pouring billions of dollars into development of business models such as robo-taxis, subscription services and connectivity. They are trying to figure out how to use the vehicle dash screen, typically a tool for navigation and music, into a cash register.
The industry is reinventing itself. Auto shows have to do the same.
Editor’s note: Jerry Hirsch is a veteran automotive journalist and editor of Trucks.com