By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Now that we have arrived at the New Mobility Frontier, life, as we know it in the auto business will be inexorably changed. The Computer Electronics Show became the new hot ticket for auto companies several years ago. Now, it’s the Must Show Up With Something Cool Show for auto execs of all stripes. The car companies are now mobility companies, or technology companies, or some combination of both, as long as it ends in a “y” it’s all good, remember?
To underscore how crazy things have gotten, FCA is opening the show with its Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid with the latest Google WAYMO self-driving technology (after all, when FCA basically has nothin’ else to talk about in Detroit except deep-discounted Fiats and Alfas that haven’t seen the light of day – or a dealership – decamping for Las Vegas to take its smoke-and-mirrors act to CES seems like a logical move).
That the Detroit Auto Show (as longtime readers know, I refuse to call it the North American International Auto Show) is rapidly becoming an afterthought is not just a rumor, it’s sinking into the Abyss of Irrelevancy before our very eyes. With the L.A. Auto Show using its position on the calendar to great effect, and with the meteoric rise of the Consumer Electronics Show, the oddly named “NAIAS” is seeing manufacturers bailing left and right, skipping the show entirely.
Bentley, Jaguar Land Rover, Maserati, Mini, Porsche, Rolls-Royce and Tesla are all skipping next week's show. Once upon a time way back when, the Detroit show was a glorified regional auto show put on by the dealers. It was a dismal, insular exercise that was supposed to spur local sales in the grim winter months. The move to become the NAIAS was a good idea at the time, but nothing lasts forever.
What can be done? First of all, with the L.A., CES and New York shows rising in prominence, the name “NAIAS” itself has become meaningless. The time is right to dispense with that awkward moniker and change it to the Detroit Auto Show. Then, I’d throw away the playbook and move the show to June, right after Memorial Day. The whole weather thing is a problem here in January, Global Warming or no, and to have the show in one of our worst months is a joke, except that the joke is on the industry based here and the media who are forced to come here. And no matter how hard the local – and insufferable, by the way – civic boosters try to spin that the Motor City is a great place to be in January, this just in: It isn’t.
On the one hand, naysayers would view this move as heresy, relegating the Detroit show to irrelevance as being “last” on the calendar. That’s one way of looking at it, but the other way to look at it is that the Detroit Auto Show would now be first on the calendar, and this would be a very good thing for the industry.
I am quite certain of two things, however: 1. Renaming and moving the show would prove to be a boon to this region and for the industry at large, and 2. The short-sighted dealers and other honchos involved in running the show will keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing until the Detroit show ends up being a regional afterthought again. Which would be a giant, heaping, steaming bowl of Not Good.
Some within the industry argue that the whole Auto Show thing itself – at least as we know it – may have finally reached its end. The undercurrent in the prevailing winds is that social media has changed the landscape and that the concept of an auto show is dead. That this thinking is fundamentally flawed is no surprise, because it’s the direct result of people in the auto business refusing to leave their self-created industry bubble. If they’d get out of this company town long enough they’d realize that for a lot of people an auto show is the only way for the non-industry masses to get a glimpse of what's going on in the market and what's available to them.
But it’s very clear that the whole orchestrated mess that defines the major auto shows – and the way the media is brought in to cover them – needs to be reimagined. It's too stale, too predictable and too boring. (Not that some of the manufacturers – and their incredibly uninspired cars – don’t already acquiesce to that level of desultory engagement perfectly, but for the rest of the companies out there that actually understand the opportunity to showcase their best stuff, there has to be a better way.) Whether the replacement idea for what passes for a major auto show today takes the form of a series of staged offsite shows over a three-day period – much like what the fashion industry does with its Fashion Week – or another idea, something has to give, because for the most part what’s going on now is stilted, predictable and relentlessly tedious.
Then again there’s a growing faction out there that dismisses the future of auto shows altogether, that in the soon-to-be idyllic bliss of our car-sharing and autonomous future, automobiles as brand status symbols will simply fade away. And as the masses transition into smelly, shared cars trying to remind themselves how great and how much better everything is, will anyone remember how much better the true freedom of mobility once was? Or even care?
I will reiterate yet again that yes, people will remember, and they will still care. That the blissful autonomous future will not be all that inclusive is not something that the brainiacs in Silicon Valley want to talk about, but it’s clear that outside of the urban centers where the autonomous and car-sharing vision takes hold, the rest of the country will go about its business much as it has been, and will for the foreseeable future too. So there’s that.
I can’t wrap up this pre-auto show issue without mentioning that Hyundai Motor America fired Dave Zuchowski, its U.S. CEO, right before Christmas. This was termed by some to be a "surprise," but there was absolutely zero surprise in this move. This has been Hyundai's "M.O." since they began operations here. Nothing is good enough, no sales targets are aggressive enough, and the Korean overlords always think Hyundai should be doing much better than it is. And there's always an American scapegoat, er, executive, who takes the fall. That Hyundai overlords missed the crossover/SUV craze by a mile is irrelevant in their minds, because they don’t make mistakes, they just clean up after the bad hires who did. By all accounts, Zuchowski did the best he could with what he had to work with, in spite of his borderline incompetent corporate bosses.
It’s funny, but as I previously mentioned in my imagined executive conversations overheard at the New York Auto Show, there was one in particular that now stands out:
“We had a clue once, and for a brief shining moment we actually had it goin’ on. Now? We couldn’t hit these overreaching sales targets if our lives depended on it. Have you seen our product lineup? It’s like a collective rolling monument to mediocrity. I’m the top sales guy, at least for now. Or at least until headquarters realizes I’m an American and I’ve been here 27 months. Which is about three months too long.”
Zuchowski lasted 24 months.
So, back to this year of selling air business. There’s a brand-new auto company on the horizon, one filled with Shiny Happy Optimism, bright sparkly quotes and overreaching promises that will soon set the world afire with yet another $100,000 all-electric car. It even has a seasoned ex-BMW executive at the helm. The company is called Lucid, and the car it will bring to market by the end of by 2019, or um, oh hell, it’s better to not hold them to it, is called the “Air.”
No, kids, you can’t make this stuff up.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for the first week of 2017.