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What’s Happening to the Auto Shows?

With the onset of electric vehicles, autonomous driving and ridesharing platforms, it’s no secret that the automotive industry is changing. And one of the best places to find evidence for that change is in the annual auto show circuit.

In 2016, the LA Auto Show Press & Trade Days and the Connected Car Expo merged to form AutoMobility LA – a precursor to the public LA Auto Show that showcases the future of mobility and automotive tech. Not one to be outdone, the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit followed suit in 2017 by starting AutoMobili-D, where automakers, tech startups, and others will announce their major initiatives and innovations that will propel the entire industry forward.

These types of events aren’t happening on their own accord. Events such as these have been started because the organizing committees have recognized a shift in the culture of their auto shows. It’s become more and more common to see representatives from tech startups and tech journalists flooding through their doors, more eager to hear about the GM-Lyft partnership than about the latest Hellcat.

Meanwhile, the traditional public auto shows haven’t exactly seen a downturn in attendance either. The attendance at the 2017 NAIAS this past January exceeded 806,000, and in 2016 they topped 815,000. These are some of the highest numbers they have seen since their record high attendance of 838,000 in 2003. Yet these strong numbers seem to fly in the face of the futurists that bet the next generation will prefer hideous self-driving mobility pods over owning their own car.

And while I’m on that subject, what about all of those doomsday theorists? You know, the ones that said automotive sales will go down because Millennials won’t buy cars? Well, if you’ve been paying attention to recent automotive sales figures, you’d realize that Millennials are indeed buying cars, and they’re driving automotive sales towards record highs, too.

So if auto shows are near record attendance, and Millennials that don’t buy cars actually do buy cars, why should the auto shows change? Some think the answer to that question is tech – Millennials buy cars not because they like burnouts and backfires, but because they like the tech that’s available in the new models. This intuitively makes sense; technology has changed just about everything in our lives, so why would the auto shows (which have remained basically unchanged for decades) be any different?

Tech is changing more than just consumer tastes, though. Some automakers have found that the expense of bidding for space at the shows, and transporting cars and staff from city to city just isn’t worth it. No doubt, consumers still do appreciate the convenience of being able to sit in multiple different models in one location, but there’s no rule that says the automakers need to be there.

Nowadays, massive swaths of the population are glued to their internet-connected phones and social media accounts all day long, and automakers have begun to identify the communications power this gives them. For the big new car reveals, this means that automakers can now skip competing for coverage at auto show press events, and instead can host their own events. And for the reveal of the 2015 Mustang, Ford did just that. Chevy then followed suit with the 2016 Camaro reveal event at Belle Isle in Detroit.

While it’s somewhat sad to lose the excitement that some of the bigger car reveals generate for the auto shows, the bigger loss comes when some automakers choose not to show up entirely. Katie and I went to our local Twin Cities Auto Show this past March, which is actually hosted by the Greater Metropolitan Automobile Dealers Association (GMADA). It’s a smaller auto show, and since it’s only put on by the dealerships in the area we never get to see the major reveals and concepts. Nonetheless, it still provides the important experience of being able to cross-shop several new models in one convenient location.

This year, everything seemed perfectly normal – the event filled the Minneapolis Convention Center, there seemed to be plenty of people in attendance, and the green car and classic car side-exhibits were still available. We did our usual routine of looking at all of the models that either of us think are cool or want to know more about, and we were pleased with the selection.

But then we got to the end and I turned to Katie and said, “wait a minute, where’s BMW?” Surely they were there somewhere, we must have just missed them accidentally. BMW was there last year. And the year before that. And the year before that. They’re pretty much always there. We looked around again and couldn’t find them. We even checked the program and sure enough, BMW wasn’t listed.

Another major automaker that was missing was Porsche, but I was less concerned that they didn’t come since I didn’t remember ever seeing them in years past, either. It took me a while to wrap my brain around the fact that BMW didn’t come, though. Why the sudden change?

There’s a lot that goes into bringing the show together; at the Twin Cities Auto Show in particular, the manufacturers, local dealers, and third party event companies often coordinate the displays. This means there are many links in the chain that brings BMW to the auto show, any of which could have broken in this particular case. I even went as far as contacting the GMADA to ask if they knew of a reason BMW didn’t participate, and they didn’t know. I think we all share in the hope that BMW returns in 2018, though.

So, is BMW’s absence at the Twin Cities Auto Show a fleeting abnormality, or just another sign of the changing times? It’s probably a little early to know for sure, but I’ll definitely be paying attention in the future.

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