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Howes: Dying auto shows

Daniel Howes
Detroit News

Thirty years after the Detroit’s auto dealers rebranded its hometown auto show as “international,” the era is over.

No more tramping through the snow braving biting winds listening to complaints about coming to the Motor City in January. After this year, the North American International Auto Show will take place June and it’ll be reimagined around hands-on experience and advanced technology.

It’s about time. Detroit’s favorite annual event is a diminished husk of its former self. European automakers, epitomized by Germany’s luxury Big Three, are gone. Industry executives no longer consider the show a must-do on the auto show calendar even if New York and L.A. still are. What a surprise.

Just 30 new models are set to be revealed during next week’s amazingly short press days. That’s down from 69 reveals just last year, as good a sign as any that Detroit’s 30-year run is limping to the end.

The swift reckoning felt most acutely in the States and Europe is a very public manifestation of the changes transforming the industry at the speed of the Internet.

Detroit is not alone.

Ford Motor skipped the Paris and Geneva shows last year. Other automakers are picking their shots. They figure there’re better returns on investment on stand-alone events removed in date and place from any auto show. They get more attention, more eyeballs and fewer distractions.

The unveiling of the new Dodge Dart at the Detroit auto show.
Credit Mark Brush / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The unveiling of the new Dodge Dart at the Detroit auto show.

Plus, automakers don’t need to talk to each other so much as talk to the outside; to Silicon Valley tech giants looking to capitalize on the self-driving trend to investors wondering whether Old Economy automakers can make the transition to Auto 2.0 to customers.

Detroit is moving the show to June, 18 months from now because it long ago reached the point where it can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.

Organizers envision an automotive Autopalooza on the Detroit River, anchored by a show floor inside and atop Cobo Center. Would that get Germany’s Audi, BMW and Mercedes back? They aren’t saying.

My take: I doubt it initially, anyway. The hyper-competition between automakers and tech giants is instilling greater discipline. Appearances at auto show can’t be “nice-to-dos.” They need to be “must-dos” or do nothing.

This much is true: Detroit’s international-era auto shows traced the global arc of the industry. The awakening of the Motor City to mega-competitors in Germany, Japan, Italy, South Korea, China and, yes, Silicon Valley. The transnational mergers like DaimlerChrysler and Renault-Nissan the technological rivalry … and the humbling bankruptcies of two of Detroit’s three.

The lowest point was 2009, more funeral than celebration. Staring at bankruptcy, Chrysler showed cars on carpets. At GM, employees waved signs saying, “We’re still here.” But there was no assurance they would be one year on.

The “can’t-miss” feeling, punctuated by cameos from industry stars named Piëch and Schrempp, is gone. Sergio Marchionne died last summer. And Carlos Ghosn is languishing in a Tokyo jail.

It was a great run, Detroit, but it’s long past time to begin a new chapter starting now.

I’m Daniel Howes of The Detroit News.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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