NAIAS 2016: Detroit Show Strives to Retain Auto Dominance Over CES



For the past few years, the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has come up on the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in an outside lane, like a fast-charging racer.

But the leadership of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association (DADA), which stages NAIAS, believes the burgeoning consumer technology exhibition in Las Vegas isn’t actually much of a threat.

“CES has its place,” Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit association, told brandchannel. “But it’s never going to take the place of the love of cars we have here.”

Over the past decade, CES has grown as the most important global stage for sharing advances in consumer digital technology. At first that meant the flat-screen TVs, then smartphones, then wearables. But when digital connectivity in automobiles became one of the main drivers of the car business, CES rather suddenly became a hugely important platform for auto brands to demonstrate their technological chops.

And when automated driving became the latest rage a couple of years ago, car-makers began not just appearing at CES but also making important product and technology news there. Last year at CES, for instance, Mercedes-Benz introduced its F 015 self-driving concept car, which helped launch the German luxury automaker into a perceived top tier of all companies working on autonomous driving.

Some of this year’s most interesting product and feature “reveals” in the auto industry took place in Las Vegas instead of Detroit. Scores of auto-related companies converged at CES, and the organizer’s decision to take up significantly more floor space in the city was driven in large part by the marketing needs of the automakers, not by the exhibit demands of smartwatch manufacturers.

Such a trend is beginning to cast a larger shadow over the Detroit Auto Show, particularly because CES occurs in sunny Nevada just a week before the traditional NAIAS show in the second week of January, which is typically snowy and chilly.

In fact, remarkably, CES nabbed the unveiling of the production version of the Chevrolet Bolt all-electric vehicle, conducted by no less than General Motors CEO Mary Barra. Detroit’s home-town Chevrolet brand only followed up with a formal introduction of Bolt at NAIAS press days this week.

But DADA’s Alberts notes that GM’s reveal of the original Bolt as a concept car occurred a year ago at NAIAS. And he said that only a few autos were actually revealed at CES this year. “Faraday Future was one of those—but that car is way out there in the future.”

By contrast, Alberts said, the Detroit show just continues to grow as the continent’s most important stage for automotive progress and as one of the three most important in the world, along with the biennial Tokyo Motor Show and the alternating exhibitions each year in Paris and Frankfurt.

Since 2008—at the beginning of the Great Recession and amid government bailouts of GM and Chrysler—DADA has worked hard to elevate NAIAS inarguably into this top tier of global auto shows, with steps such as cooperating with a massive renovation of Detroit’s once-outdated Cobo convention center. NAIAS also built and maintained an extensive electric vehicle “test track” on the lowest floor of the hall once exhibitor and consumer interest in EVs took off.

And Alberts and DADA built The Gallery into a huge kickoff event for NAIAS by inviting ultra-luxury auto buyers for a day of browsing through a $7-million collection of cars at Motor City Casino and eating a dinner served by Wolfgang Puck.

“For the last 25 years, our show has belonged to the international sanctioning body along with 30 to 40 other auto shows, including the other major ones,” Alberts said. “And with tech growing by leaps and bounds, there is room for growth” in latecomers such as CES and SEMA—the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association show.

This week, NAIAS was the forum for more than 50 global or North American premieres of new production models, concept vehicles, features, supplier systems and components—most of them announced by the companies’ top executives, including Toyota Motor CEO Akio Toyoda and Michelin North America chairman and president Pete Selleck. To chronicle the news, NAIAS hosted more than 5,000 automotive journalists and other cognoscenti from 60 countries.

Those sorts of credentials continue to keep NAIAS elevated above CES as an automotive forum. What’s more, Alberts notes, the Detroit show is getting some defectors from CES—such as an awards presentation by the Autoblog website—as well as the other way around.

Continental, a major supplier of auto systems and components, chose CES this year to demonstrate its overall “holistic” approach to connectivity. But the company stuck with NAIAS for unveiling its actual new platform for advancing automated driving for the industry, called 2025AD.

“We had seven cars [at CES] and it’s becoming more of an auto show, but more on the tech side than about product launches,” Jeff Klei, president for the NAFTA region for Continental Automotive Divisions, told brandchannel. “CES has become the show to talk about connectivity. And we could have done our unveiling there as well. But I don’t see CES threatening NAIAS. They’re two different events.”