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Forget Detroit, CES is now the most important motor show

Posted by: Thomas Harrison-Lord on 13 January 2017

For decades, the Detroit Motor Show has been the shining star of the American car industry, but in 2017, has CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) stolen the limelight?

We begin with a little history lesson. America’s automotive history has roots long set in the previously venerated Michigan city of Detroit. Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, known as ‘The Big 3’, all designed, developed and produced cars in Detroit throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s. At a time, one in every six working Americans were employed in some form by the US motor industry, with Detroit being the beating heart. Heck, it even spawned a genre of music, Motown (short for motor-town).

As times changed, so did the area. Car manufacturers moved to different locations for cheaper production alternatives, either within America or in countries such as Mexico (just ask Donald Trump). Detroit meanwhile, went through colossal unemployment and in 2013, declared bankruptcy. Yes, a city, in America, one of the richest countries on earth, went under.

Detroit definitely has a chequered past with the automotive industry. But, despite that, the Detroit Motor Show has always remained the biggest, best and most important motor show in the American (and sometimes, world) car calendar. To the extent that the show is known these days as the ‘North American International Auto Show’. A bit of a mouthful and carrying on that great (stupid) American tradition of calling something ‘international’ when it’s only held in America. Like the Major League Baseball World Series.

Year in, year out, ‘The Big 3’ American automakers show off their latest innovations, cool concept cars, visions of the future and their next top-selling model. Only, in 2017, they didn’t.

Automotive Marketing Motor Show

Chevrolet’s biggest draw was the Traverse SUV. A bog standard 7-seater car that is about as interesting as a political broadcast from the Liberal Democrats; but which GM CEO Mary Barra described as “beautiful”. Perhaps I was looking at pictures of a different car…?

GMC had a new Terrain, another identikit SUV; Chrysler and Dodge had literally nothing new, and Ford announced many new things that were not at the show and don’t exist yet (such as the Bronco for 2020, and a hybrid Mustang at some point in the future, maybe).

The highlight of the show was not homegrown, but rather Korean, in the form of the rather scintillating Kia Stinger. If you look down slightly at Kia cars in the same way our Al thinks of Aldi, then click here to see why you shouldn’t.

CES, however, has always been a hotbed of new televisions. 4K, HDR, colour gamuts, curved, thin, expensive. The tech world congresses in Las Vegas at the start of each year to present this year’s must-haves via a giant mix of press conferences and bright lights. From pocket-sized drones to smartfridges. You read that correctly, smartfridges. Smart, fridges. Yup.

This year was slightly different. All of the major headlines from the event seemed to be about cars. This first came to my attention right around CES 2015, but now, in 2017, the car manufacturers where there en-masse.

When the best (in my opinion) tech person on the entire world wide web, Marques Brownlee, reported on not one, but two cars from CES – and zero new smartphones, tablets, laptops and other gadgets, you know that the tide has turned.

Blame Tesla, I do. They will sell you a car powered by batteries, that is perceived to be green, that has cool Falcon Wing doors, that will park itself and drive on the motorway in Autopilot mode. More than that, they are a new car brand that has managed to become cool. Not just that, but in the zeitgeist of public opinion, and revered by a younger audience.

The car industry keeps on churning out humdrum SUV vehicles because they are a growing market and increasingly sell well. But that misses the bigger picture. Do the children of today grown up yearning for a Nissan Qashqai? Do they heckers. I grew up wanting a Honda Prelude, or a Mazda RX-7. These days we have the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5. The ever increasing trend for slightly taller hatchbacks sells to the existing adult who likes easy access and an elevated driving position, but they do nothing to inspire the next generation.

All the while, tech upstarts are filling that void. Just look how many views on YouTube Tesla videos get. The products surprise and delight, gaining a new generation of early adopting fans. Fans that may never even have to drive a car because it will do the driving for them by the time they are old enough.

Technology Comsumer Electronics Show

At last then, the old-fashioned car industry was trying to catch up and used CES 2017 to showcase that they too can do electric and autonomous vehicles. Only, they came across as a little bit like Paul McCartney wearing Vans. Just, no.

So, we had an Audi that could drive itself around a driveway, a BMW with integrated Microsoft Cortana and self-driving modes, a Mercedes-Benz E-Class fitted with an almost road-worthy self-driving system, a mad concept car (labelled Concept-I) from Toyota, a Honda that could theoretically read your emotions and a cringe-worthy millennial-targeted Chrysler people carrier concept. The problem is, none of them are in production or near production. You can’t buy them.

It was almost as if the existing car industry wants to show what it can do, if it really concentrated, but ultimately they just continue to do what they are currently doing. But in reality, new-business has beaten them to the punch. Concept cars are just that. A flight of fancy.

Small upstart Lucid Motors didn’t have a flashy CES stand or conference, preferring to give journalists a ride in a prototype. It is real. It works, you can order one. Where did I read about it? Not on Autocar, Car Magazine or Top Gear, but the technology focussed website The Verge.

Nevertheless, it shows that the latest, biggest, most innovative ideas are at a show not meant for cars, but one that normally showcases the hottest in microwave solutions or wearable technology. Thanks to the smartphone and social media, technology is commonplace and ever-advancing. Now the car wants to be that too. Whether the existing car manufacturers can catch up or not remains to be seen, but one thing is certain, technology is absolutely the driving force of where personal transportation is headed to next.

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