By Sam Krahn, Associate

I live and breathe all things automotive, and have since my childhood. It was easy to access, growing up in Southeast Michigan, the seat of the automotive industry. A highlight of each year was my dad’s and my annual January pilgrimage to the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). Despite the bitter cold and often horrendous stormy weather, my father and I would brave the icy roads to catch the latest reveals and marvel at the extravagant automaker displays.

In my adulthood, however, I’ve watched auto shows around the world shrink in size, importance and even existence. The auto show as a concept is fighting to remain relevant, and nowhere is this more obvious than this year’s revamped Detroit Auto Show, which – for the first time – was held in September.

I went into the show optimistic but realistic. For a long time, auto shows were the place automakers could ensure maximum media attention for their new vehicles. However, launching a new product at an auto show means jostling for headlines and media coverage with other automakers. During the pandemic, automakers were forced to figure out how to create a splash for their new vehicle debuts without the existing easy platform of an in-person auto show. That necessity led to some spectacular and creative standalone reveals completely independent of auto shows or other large established events. And these events, in many cases, allowed for days on end of uncontested news coverage and public attention.

This is part of why so many have called this year’s Detroit auto show a ghost of its former self. Automakers found a new path to attention and glory and didn’t all return when the show did. Gone are the multi-story displays with luxury lounges for VIPs, dozens of screens per display and an expectation that every OEM will attend. Instead, this year’s displays were comparatively low budget and one half day of press conferences – instead of the longstanding tradition of 1.5 days of press conferences – is a clear indicator of how few brands were in attendance and how few new vehicle debuts occurred.

2022 North American International Auto Show
While the massive media scrums of past Detroit Auto Shows were absent, there was still a good turnout of auto industry reporters and professionals during the NAIAS 2022 industry preview days.

Another oddity was having a competing show in town, The Battery Show, in Novi, Michigan. The Battery Show happened simultaneously with the auto show’s media and industry days and focused, as the name indicates, on the latest and greatest in EV and battery tech, something NAIAS also says it features in its Automobili-D section.

In the turn away from multiple days of press conference, however, the Detroit Auto Show, and all auto shows for that matter, have become increasingly consumer-oriented and experiential. At NAIAS, attendees can take a ride on Bronco Mountain to see the off-road tech Ford’s new Bronco has onboard, or head over to Camp Jeep to see the competing Wrangler’s capability. The media doesn’t care about this, they’ve already been on the press drives, but it gets consumers excited. Furthermore, there are several automaker offering ride and drives around downtown Detroit. The auto is the ideal place for consumers to see all the latest vehicles on sale today without having to drive from dealer to dealer- and deal with the sales pitch. Plus, as EVs become more commonplace, consumers want to see and interact with the future of the industry first-hand.

The auto show also isn’t taking itself as seriously as it used to. Jeep dropped the world’s largest rubber duck in front of Huntington Place, a nod to Jeep owners surprising other Jeep owners with little rubber ducks out in the wild. There are dozens of dinosaurs dotted around the show floor. You can even get a ride in monster trucks in Hart Plaza. NAIAS is going all in on its roots as a family-friendly attraction and embracing the more pleasant temperatures of its new September timing to draw people downtown – benefiting the city beyond Huntington Place (that’s Cobo Hall to you old-school Michiganders).

And while there weren’t many reveals, the stampede leading to the all-new Ford Mustang unveil is nothing to gloss over.

For Lambert and our auto clients, this much different auto show was a success. The North American Car Truck and Utility Vehicle of the Year (NACTOY) revealed its semifinalists for this year’s awards, The Shyft Group displayed its Blue Arc electric van and its Power Cube portable remote-controlled charging station, and clients such as Lightning eMotors and Bell Helicopter were on site to meet journalists on the show floor and at Lambert’s own well-attended Motor City Mixer. The auto show provided the central hub for meaningful interaction with industry and press. There was less big news, but the right people – including car-guy President Joe Biden, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, GM CEO Mary Barra, Stellantis Chairman John Elkann and Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. – were still there, among many others and a retinue of U.S. and global financial, political and automotive press.

Moving forward, it’s time to accept that auto shows globally, not just in Detroit, will never be what they once were. Sometimes change is necessary and gives way to something even better. Maybe automakers, mobility companies, auto tech and battery innovators will envision bigger and bolder ways to participate next year. Maybe the interactivity of this year’s show will catch on. Maybe the NAIAS organizers will merge their Automobili-D with the battery show to see an even greater benefit from working together. Time will tell, but I’m happy the Detroit Auto Show is back and I eagerly await what comes next for our storied show.