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We Need to Repair the Auto Show

In today's world of spectacles and up-to-the-minute Internet information portals, the traditional Auto Show has lost its reason for being. Here's how we can fix it.

Ming-yen Hsu via Flickr

So-called "booth babes" abound at a modern auto show. Want real information that's not in an automaker's brochure? That's nowhere to be found here.

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It is January, and show season is upon us. The race to the Oscars is on in Hollywood and the season of auto shows is revving up from January to April.

Take for example the Detroit Auto Show (aka the North American International Auto Show), which is going on through January 22. The latest concepts and the latest cars are on the red carpet. They are gleaming in all their splendor: Cruzes vs. Sonatas, Teslas vs. Volts, cascading displays of water and ice, buckets of brochures, and a solar flare of Klieg lights and press flash bulbs.

But is anything really displayed? Where are the engineers with their inventions? Where is the hands-on interaction where customers can try out innovations on the horizon? Where are the things that might work, but on which research is not yet complete? Where is the information? Where is the sizzle?  Where is the spectacle? Could it be that these shows are missing a larger more engaged audience?

In 1900, the first version of a major auto show debuted in Madison Square Garden. It was a spectacle to introduce people to horseless carriages. It had ramps and hill-climbs and displays of braking and acceleration. In addition, the show introduced the world introduction of the Curved Dash Olds (the first volume production car in history—yes, even before Henry Ford). This was a real spectacle 100 years ago.

Several decades later, Harley Earl, Alfred Sloan, and General Motors drove the show world in a new direction by using the stage to display concept cars and concept technology and to gauge reaction to ideas of future technology and design. It became largely a tool for companies to gather information and sample customers' tastes, in order to make decisions on how to allocate capital. Marketers, designers, and engineers prowled the public floor to decide what was next. This was a show designed for feedback.

Today, look at what "experts" staff the shows. Local modeling agencies are emptied out for show week in each town, and young women hit the carpet in the shortest of skirts memorizing facts about horsepower and J.D. Power statistics. You are lucky to find a designer, engineer, or any executive in any booth except on press days—and don't even try to ask for any real information beyond the brochure. It is not to be had.

Who owns the auto show? In the past it was the Automobile Club of America, which put it on at the request of its members.  Today it is the exhibitors, the face-to-face show businesses (such as Freeman, Inc.), and the unions loosely organized by an ad-hoc show committee set up by the host city. Really, it has always been the fans who pay for it, and in inflation-adjusted terms, these auto shows have not risen in price (it's still around $12) or popularity for the last 100 years. If anything, they have shrunk.

Even the schedule of events for an average show today shows a conflicted agenda. The first 50 percent of the time is dedicated exclusively to credentialed press and industry participants to schmooze with each other behind closed doors. And the remaining 50 percent of the time is for public viewing. The two sides, public and corporate, don't mix.

Sometimes there are the token "new tech exhibition spaces" but usually they are given tiny space, no billing, and left only for small companies that cannot afford the entry price. The big companies don't want to staff them, and they are not the main event. In fact, in Detroit this year, such an area is not even offered.

In short, the modern auto show is broken. It is a shell of its former self. It is neither a spectacle in the same universe as modern Disney, nor is it a place for information competitive with the likes of Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia. For these reasons, it has lost its raison d'etre. It should either fade out and stop costing companies and cities so much money and time, or it should change radically.

What could it look like as an improvement? Here are some modern analogs which might give us a clue:

King of the Hammers. This Johnson Valley, California, event has grown 10 times its original size in four years. It has produced an exhibition space of automotive technology the size of a large lake bed. There have been three feature length movies produced of it. Multiple races are hosted at the event. A whole new town, "Hammer Town" convenes once a year at the event with a population swelling to 100,000 people. It even has its own police force. This event is so popular that its price has risen to $20 per person, and you have to bring your own campsite just to attend.

The 24-Hour Nürburgring. This event takes place in its west German town namesake yearly boasting 700 drivers and cars, 300,000 spectators, and exhibitors of all kinds of new auto technology for a whole weekend. It has become such an icon over the past 25 years that it now costs $150 to attend.

The TED lecture series. This is a more-general-interest event where spectators pay $6,000 to be inspired by the latest thinking and innovation. Its lectures have spawned 100s of satellite lecture series around the world, which highlight local innovation in Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED). It may not be a car show, but it is a place where presenters captivate the mind with what might be possible if we think big.

The Isle of Man TT motorcycle event. It boasts a big festival, takes over an entire island, and has spawned the first truly competitive, zero-emissions race called the TTXGP. At this event, at last, all-electric motorcycles compete at the same level of excitement as their gas powered brethren. In fact, the Isle of Man TT is so sought after and so packed, it is rare to find a ticket or a place to stay even if you do score a pass.

You may consider these competition-focused exhibitions or entertainment spectacles to be different from a traditional auto show, and that is precisely the point. They are true spectacles and true displays of technology, and the response from the fans and the ticket prices ought to tell the traditional auto shows that they are missing something.

Last updated: Jan 18, 2012

JOHN B. ROGERS | Columnist | CEO, Local Motors

John B. Rogers, Jr. ("Jay"), is co-founder and CEO of Local Motors, a new U.S. car company that is changing the way cars are designed, built, and sold. Rogers is a family man, former Marine, HBS grad, and auto enthusiast.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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