Sep 14, 2022 - Economy & Business

Auto shows fight to maintain their relevance

Illustration of a tire almost out of the spotlight
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Auto shows were already struggling to maintain their relevance before the pandemic — and then we went two years without one, forcing them into an existential crisis.

Why it matters: The nation's major auto shows — those taking place in New York, Detroit, Los Angeles and Chicago — collectively drew millions of attendees annually in the past and served as the launching pad for dozens of new vehicles.

  • But automakers have been gravitating toward social media stunts and one-off events to generate buzz for their new rides, causing shows like this week's Detroit auto show to reinvent themselves to prove their relevance.
  • "Most major car companies and executives are sitting out the show, bypassing an event that was once one of the largest yearly gatherings in the auto business," the Wall Street Journal reported.

State of play: 15 automotive brands have displays this year, down from 24 in 2019 and 35 a decade ago, WSJ reported.

  • "They’re just trying to hold on for dear life and ride the storm out," S&P Global Mobility analyst Stephanie Brinley tells Axios. "It’s hard to make forward progress and redevelop an auto show property when things are in such a state of flux."

Yes, but: From a political and cultural perspective, auto shows remain just as relevant as ever.

  • Self-proclaimed car guy President Biden visited the Detroit show today — marking its return after 3.5 years off— to showcase his administration's effort to boost electric vehicles.
  • And with hundreds of thousands of people expected to attend, the show remains a catalyst for actual sales, if not as much media buzz as before.

What they're saying: "We’ll see fewer new vehicles being introduced at auto shows," Brinley says. "There’s no way to get around that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not relevant and can’t be used and aren’t important."

State of play: Indeed, the North American International Auto Show — the official name of the Detroit auto show — still has a few tricks up its sleeve.

  • Ford is debuting the newly redesigned Mustang.
  • General Motors is showing off the 2024 Chevrolet Equinox EV for the first time in person after recently announcing online that the family SUV would carry a starting price of "around" $30,000.

What's next: Auto shows are getting more creative about their displays, adopting more experiential activities to entice people to visit.

  • For example, Detroit auto show attendees will see demonstrations of aerial taxis with vertical takeoff and landing capability.

The bottom line: Auto shows can't afford to stay still in an industry that's defined by mobility.

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