The early weeks of January typically involve a trip to Detroit specifically to see the North American International Auto Show. I’ve been attending the event at Cobo Hall for two decades and the reason I go is because it is more than just a car show. Several months prior to opening day, the stark convention center is transformed into a gallery of immersing experiences showcasing rolling sculpture. The show uses every element of theatre including, architecture, lighting, sound, and motion to tell compelling stories about people and cars. The Detroit show is just one of those unique events best experienced in person and there is usually lots of inspiring things to see.
The challenging economy and self-inflicted auto company management problems haven’t escaped manifestation at Detroit. Gone from the 2009 show were the multi-level exhibit stands, the huge custom video walls, and the high saturation of new concept car designs. It was mostly just another car show.
The talk prior to the opening of the 2010 show was more optimistic. Maybe some of the creative spark would come back to Cobo. The buzz was around small cars, more new innovative hybrid and electric vehicles, and maybe a sense that the future is indeed going to be bright. But the 2010 show left us confused and with the impression not many manufacturers had found the right gear to go forward. The vividness of prior shows had this year been replaced with tones of low-contrast. There seemed to be a figurative ( and then literal) haze inside Cobo Hall.
So instead of coming away from the show with a batch of interesting new ideas, we found a few half baked ones. But maybe there’s some to-be-developed gems here that might bring a fresh and contemporary experience to the way cars are presented.
#1 Small Cars – Big Platforms
Here’s a simple one. Small cars in the US have always been a tough sell because customers want a lot of room in their vehicles. Designers have become skilled at using spacial tricks to make them feel as big as possible in the interior. So why hasn’t this understanding of proportions been applied to how they are displayed. We saw so many new small cars sitting on gigantic platforms making them visually appear tiny.
#2 Craftsmanship – Workers vs. Robots
Ford constructed a large display showcasing two of their assembly line robots in glass cylinders surrounded by engines they apparently built. Actually the robots were part of a show with some human presenters and only moved some signs around. But it got us thinking, this really wasn’t very compelling visual theatre. Why not assemble a car at the show for real with human workers and demonstrate a quality story. When the car is finished at the end of the show, auction it off for charity.
#3 Technology – Embrace Automotive Gaming
Ford also had some gaming stations getting a lot of attention. The panels had an augmented reality driving game on one side controlled by a giveaway brochure. On the other was another driving game controlled by a motion pad in the floor. We thought about all the attention driving games have been getting lately. Auto manufacturers are starting to debut real cars in games and creating real cars for games. Why doesn’t Forza or Gran Turismo have a huge presence at auto shows?
#4 Communication Clarity – VW and Hyundai
Obvious but still often overlooked. VW brought some custom multi-lingual wayfinding. Hyundai talked fuel efficiency while splashing fuel all over their gigantic signs.
#5 Context – The Black Beach
Mini chose to display their Beachcomber concept car on a wavy black rubber beach framed with a black palm tree surrounded by their black booth. Not that anyone noticed. We would have liked to see a dose of reality in the context cars would be used in, especially those with new technologies. Maybe more people would warm up to the idea of an electric car if it was presented in the context of a residential garage with all the charging bits cleverly installed. It won’t be long before our houses and cars share energy. It would be interesting to see how this integration will work and look.
Maybe next year…