The traditional auto show is dying, along with traditional car ownership

For auto journalists, industry insiders and car fanatics, the months between September and April are known first and foremost as auto show season. From Tokyo to New York, every few weeks a new batch of concept and production vehicles are unveiled. The internet has turned this event into something of a circus with media outlets competing to chase leaks and be the first to publish images of forthcoming reveals. Automakers have their own social media teams dedicated to supplying teaser images and vague hints weeks ahead of a debut adding fuel to the hype fire.

I’ve been an avid auto show enthusiast since a time when the only thing I could drive were Hot Wheels cars. Over the years I went from attending one show a year, to two and then getting opportunities to attend shows in Europe. Looking at the cars was cool but what I loved just as much was the spectacle surrounding them. There is no more memorable time than the mid 2000’s at the Detroit Auto Show when the spectacle hit a peak.

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What occurred over the span of four or five years was essentially a display stand arms race between manufacturers. Inside Cobo Hall, single floor stands grew to multi story installations complete with their own elevators and escalators. Cars were hung on vertical walls two stories up, Jeep created at text-displaying waterfall, giant video walls began to appear rivaling the size of movie theatre screens. These were environments created to immerse visitors within a brand and it got to a level where the physical cars started to become accessory elements. It was what I could best describe as the golden age of auto show excess.

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In the years since, that intensity has been dialed back. There aren’t as many grand adventures in show stand architecture as before. The Frankfurt Auto Show is really the last place to see a continuation of bonkers show stand creativity as BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz try to out do each other on home turf. Some of this is down to the enormous costs that come with creating, transporting and installing stands at a half dozen shows scattered around the globe. Some manufacturers used to create bespoke stands just for the Detroit show that would have a lifespan of two weeks period and then get trashed.

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The other issue facing automotive marketing departments particularly with media exposure is time. Press conferences are tightly scheduled together, individually lasting about 20 minutes with a 10-minute gap between them. Media covering the reveals have to essentially sprint from place to place to see everything. This offers each manufacturer only a small amount of time with a captive journalist audience before they move on to find the next piece of news. On top of that, press reveals are their own expenditure requiring reconfiguration of the stand, creation of a launch film or some kind of content, and general curtain pull theatrics.

Maintaining a commitment to do all the shows is an enormous budget decision. Over the past few years, MINI, Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo and Porsche have reduced the number of shows they have attended favoring their stronger sales markets. There’s also a kind of realization zeitgeist occurring where there’s little uniqueness left to explore in presenting products within a traditional auto show format. Alternatives for revealing new production vehicles or concepts are happening frequently these days. There’s online broadcasts that a global audience can attend, enthusiast events like Pebble Beach and smaller targeted media events. Bentley for instance, staged a discrete media debut of their 2017 Continental Supersports model in an alley in downtown Detroit and skipped exhibiting at Cobo Hall altogether.

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Offering consumers a single location to see a wide range of brands is what the auto show was created to do. What’s changing is technology developments are beginning to challenge whether people need to own personal cars at all. Auto shows are becoming ‘one venue' where industry professionals, tech companies and consumers are trying to figure out what that means. It’s a complicated, multifaceted problem packaged within the term mobility.

CES was were we first saw automakers and startups experiment with presenting realistic autonomous vehicle technology ideas. The 2016 edition of the show included a number of vehicle debuts signifying that year as one where automakers became a major part of the show. 2016 was also the year Mark Fields, CEO of Ford Motor Company, announced at the Detroit show that Ford was no longer classifying itself as an automaker, instead a mobility company.

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The LA Auto Show used to host a Connected Car Expo until 2016 when it became Automobility LA. The program was anchored by a Technology Pavilion, a temporary structure that housed 40 exhibits including ten startups selected from an open call competition. Two full days were held with speakers and panel discussions around the topic of technology and cars.

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Detroit for the first time presented its own multi-day program and exhibition called AutoMobili-D. The event covers five mobility topics: autonomous driving, connected car technologies, e-mobility, mobility services and urban mobility. A startup lounge offered new companies a chance to set up short meetings and pitch their ideas to auto industry professionals. The 120,000 square foot exhibition included an indoor autonomous car test track.

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Next month, the New York Auto Show will host the inaugural Empire State of Mobility Conference. The goal of the conference is explore ways public and private partnerships can fund infrastructure improvements to facilitate connected cars, autonomous mobility and smart streets. In addition, the second press day of the show will feature a group of tech companies and startups working on mobility ideas and applications.

Beyond the influence of new technologies changing what an auto show now is, customers are increasingly researching and buying vehicles online. Attendance at auto shows is still high, but visitors aren't necessarily going with specific shopping tasks in mind. The fate of the auto show both as industry and consumer event is unclear but it won't take many manufacturers jettisoning the format to see it collapse. In a way it feels inevitable that the auto shows of today have a limited life remaining. We might look forward to future-roaming 3D show stands in VR and see new models debuted in augmented reality. There's probably a startup somewhere already working on that.

Photos: Dave Pinter, AutoMobili-D

For auto journalists, industry insiders and car fanatics, the months between September and April are known first and foremost as auto show season. From Tokyo to New York, every few weeks a new batch of concept and production vehicles are unveiled. The internet has turned this event into something of a circus with media outlets competing to chase leaks and be the first to publish images of forthcoming reveals. Automakers have their own social media teams dedicated to supplying teaser images and vague hints weeks ahead of a debut adding fuel to the hype fire.